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Since the beginning of 2023, more than 1,000 homeless people have been arrested in Columbia, according to police data submitted to the state.

More than two-thirds of police encounters with homeless people in Columbia end without an arrest. According to the police department, officers may encounter homeless people for a variety of reasons, such as when the resident reports a crime or an officer connects a resident with social services.

Columbia police officers self-report their encounters with homeless people. Their reports show that 1,073 homeless people were arrested between January 2023 and May 2024. That represents 29% of all encounters between police and homeless people. Police stressed that they do not track homeless people, but keep data on all arrests.

The data does not indicate whether the arrests are of repeat offenders or what crimes the homeless people are accused of. The state has requested incident reports related to the arrests for more information.

Columbia officials have been discussing for several years how to reduce the number of homeless people loitering in commercial districts such as Main Street and Vista. The goal, officials say, is to both address longstanding quality of life issues for businesses and visitors and provide chronically homeless residents with needed addiction treatment, housing and job services.

Columbia police have played a role in that effort. Last year, police launched Operation Hope and Order, which was designed to combat homelessness downtown by cracking down on loitering, among other things, and specifically targeting businesses that received a high number of police calls. Two downtown businesses had a total of 1,200 incidents in the first half of 2023, Holbrook previously said.

Holbrook acknowledged that most homeless people in Columbia do not commit crimes, but there are a handful of repeat offenders. Between January 2021 and June 2024, police reported 8,489 contacts with homeless people, and 47% of those encountered had at least one prior encounter with police, according to the agency. Forty percent of the contacts occurred because police believed the person was a suspect.

Police say they do not automatically arrest anyone for things like loitering and that the majority of arrests are for violent crimes or public disorder.

Housing activists say there is a misconception that homeless people commit many crimes.

“I think it’s a mistake to automatically associate homelessness with crime,” said Paul Bowers, communications director for the ACLU of South Carolina. “People are homeless for many reasons.”

The ACLU of South Carolina accused the city of criminalizing homelessness last year after the city passed an ordinance that criminalized possession of stolen shopping carts and changed warning rules about camping in the city, among other things.

Bowers said the ACLU is not concerned about police arresting people for violent crimes. “The problem, however, is that the ordinances are written in such a way that police encounter homeless people more frequently than other communities.”

Alternative solutions

Police encounters with homeless people can end in three ways, said Columbia Police Major Chris Roberts. In most cases, police conduct an interview with a resident and then take no further action. Police also respond when businesses ask for help evicting people who are trespassing on private property. In those cases, police will find that the person has a trespassing summons, but those encounters usually don’t end in arrests. Police also contact homeless people to help connect them with services, Roberts added.

Between January 2023 and May 2024, Columbia Police conducted 1,762 field interviews or information reports with homeless individuals that did not result in an arrest. Columbia Police were able to connect homeless individuals with services 802 times during this time period.

These services could include connecting the person with police mental health clinics or connecting residents with a social worker in the city who can offer them help, Roberts said.

The department also coordinates with the city’s Rapid Shelter program, which provides temporary housing made from pallets to chronically homeless residents.

Holbrook had previously said that avoiding arrests of homeless people through the use of mental health experts and officers trained in crisis management were success stories for the department. “You could say arrests are failures,” he added.

Roberts said residents don’t always want to be connected to these services and that the department can only make these connections if the resident consents. In these cases, officers will try to build trust with residents over time, he added.

“We show that we are not just there to arrest people, but to help.”

Roberts told The State that arrests are not the first response police make when they encounter homeless people. Disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace are incidents that could lead to an arrest if officers fail to deescalate a situation, Roberts said.

“Homelessness is not against the law,” Roberts said. “We don’t care about homelessness, we care about criminal activity, regardless of socioeconomic status.”

Police have also been tasked with cracking down on loitering and illegal camping by clearing homeless camps across the city.

In 2023, Columbia police cleared 48 encampments citywide. Between January and June of this year, police cleared 24 encampments, according to police data.

The city has also hired private security firm Allied Universal to patrol downtown areas for loitering individuals.

Columbia approved a $2 million contract with the security firm in July 2023 for a range of security services across the city, including armed security guards at fixed locations and patrol teams monitoring properties for loitering and other crimes.

Allied Universal employees are not authorized to make arrests, the police department previously told The State.