Richland County Sheriff's Department breaks up homeless encampment on private property
The Richland County Sheriff’s Department Thursday ousted an undetermined number of unhoused adults and children from an encampment, saying the move was an attempt to both reduce crime in the area of the camp and to get members of the community to services.
Sheriff Leon Lott said in a phone interview Friday that some past residents of the encampment have ben linked to criminal activity, including a spate of break-ins in Columbia, which three people were recently charged in connection with.
“Some people who are homeless are criminals,” Sheriff Lott said. “Not all of them are like that, but some are.”
Lila Anna Sauls, president and CEO of Homeless No More, a shelter and social services agency in Columbia, said that those who were living at this encampment in the woods are homeless by choice.
“These are not the homeless who want to come in for services,” Sauls said.
She emphasized, however, that this is not the norm, and that while the individuals connected to the encampment broken up Thursday have been tied to high property crime rates in the neighborhood, most homeless are not criminals.
“We really push back on the idea that all homeless are [criminals],” she said. “Our families in the shelters, in our programs … they’re not that.”
The camp destroyed Thursday was on private property. Sheriff Lott said the site was littered with needles and was “trashed.” He called the living conditions “atrocious.” The move to oust people encamped there was done with the permission of the property owner and in coordination with local homeless and social services agencies, he said.
The sheriff said officers approached the site two weeks ago to tell people encamped there that they were trespassing and would have to leave. He said encampment residents were informed of services, but the Sheriff’s Department did not provide transportation to any locations. He said a nearby bus station could get them transportation to any services, such as homeless shelters or social/health clinics that could provide help finding food, housing, and medical/addiction treatment. He said that some individuals have already sought out services in Columbia.
No one was arrested, he said.
“This is not ‘us against them,’” Sheriff Lott said. “It’s us trying to get them to go to these services. They get no services in the woods.”
He said the ouster was an effort to force the hands of those who had been living at the encampment to seek the help they need, adding that he hopes the children living with their parents at the site can get help.
“Children did not make the decision [to live there],” he said.