Columbia's homeless struggle with economy

The economic downturn has increased competition for work.
Jeffrey 'Wolf' Lynch gives his feet a rest to smoke a cigarette on a bench downtown Sunday. Job shortages have yielded an increase in homeless people in Columbia.

The recent economic downturn has affected more than just middle class families. The swelling ranks of the destitute and jobless create more competition for resources among the homeless.

As Congress negotiates an $819 billion stimulus package aimed at boosting business and the middle class, the homeless are having trouble getting by.

Perry Blanch, who lives in a shelter at the New Life Evangelistic Center, said the downturn in the economy has made the streets much more crowded and the few donated supplies, such as clothing and toiletries far more scarce.

Blanch also said the shelter turns away many people every night, forcing them into the more rural areas of the city.

"Columbia is going to have to open a lot more shelters because now there are a lot more people out there living in the woods and that's really dangerous," Blanch said.

He said the introduction of the newly homeless has also created tensions on the streets as they move on space already claimed by other people or cross paths with others with unfamiliar temperaments.

"Now you've got these new guys coming to town and sometimes they don't know who they're dealing with," Blanch said. "Especially with the number of people who are crazy when they've been drinking."

Blanch said he has looked for a job without any success for the past month. Myra Lovelace, an acquaintance of Blanch's, said she had been divorced several years ago and never recovered. She agreed the increase in people losing their jobs or seeking a second form of employment have made it much harder to find work that could get them off the street.

"There have been a lot more people and that's made it harder to find a place to work," Lovelace said.

Thomas Eaves, walking with a group near Broadway and Eighth Street, said finding space to get out of the cold has been particularly hard, even more so than finding supplies. He said he has not noticed a decrease in the amount of supplies that are donated, but without more beds opening up, the number of people and the colder weather mean he has to work hard to find a bed at night.

"This has been a bad winter," Eaves said. "It's been a lot harder, especially getting into shelters."

Columbia Police Department Sgt. Scott Young said the department does not have specific officers trained or assigned to crimes involving homeless people. He said it arrests and interacts with homeless people the same way as other suspects, only as they violate the law.

Young said the CPD has not seen a significant rise in crime among the homeless or noted an official increase in their numbers because of the economy, but said there were many other reasons for homelessness besides financial circumstances.

"I don't think there's been an increase in the number," Young said. "A lot of these guys aren't homeless for economic reasons."

Eaves said he is not optimistic about the economic situation, especially in a town introducing so many more people to the labor force with more education.

"There are no jobs here, you don't even think about it anymore," Eaves said. "The college kids are getting all the jobs."

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