Just a few years ago, the notion that there was a tent city somewhere in Charleston was treated as a rumor, a myth. The actual location of a homeless encampment in the Holy City was a secret known to only its residents, the few people willing to support them, and a reporter or two. But today, everyone knows exactly where it is. In fact, this tiny area of town has now been given the proper-noun treatment, Tent City, putting it in the same class as downtown’s neighborhoods.
Instead of dealing with homelessness, last year the City of Charleston chose to ban panhandling. Citing vague concerns about traffic safety, the city patted itself on the back for finding a way to get around court rulings that said panhandling was free speech. In the process, the Riley administration bought itself a few more months to ignore the problem.
Considering that the problem was only getting worse and with peak tourist season coming up, it was of no surprise that Charleston’s new mayor, John Tecklenburg, promised a solution in “months, not years.” True to his words, last Thursday the Tecklenburg administration unveiled its 10-point plan for dealing with Tent City.
So what does that plan entail, you ask? Is the first order of business finding a place for people to move to immediately and with none of the usual strings attached? No. The city’s first priority is cleaning up the property. After that’s been done, it’s on to step two: offering temporary shelter to some of the residents of Tent City. Then it’s back to more cleaning, and then, what the city is calling “clearing.” And then there’s the possibility that the state Department of Transportation — the current owners of the Tent City property — will lease the land to the city. Oh, and of course, there will be a website created, so citizens can get involved. Even better, there’s step 10, the obligatory formation of a “blue ribbon” commission to come up with a long-term solution. (Note: The quotation marks are in the city’s press release and are not my usual method of highlighting bullshit.)
And make no mistake, this entire 10-point plan is bullshit. Instead of immediately securing housing for the homeless, this proposal relies heavily on more of the same “out of sight, out of mind” policies that marginalize the homeless to such a degree that the general public ceases to recognize homelessness as the ongoing societal failure that it is.
Further, the plan perpetuates the existence of charities which are predicated on having a homeless population to care for in the first place. Some of these charities take in millions of dollars each and every year, and yet there are still some 100 people in Tent City, not to mention the people already in area shelters and those in hotels or other impermanent housing.
And before you say that I’m exaggerating about the amount of money homeless charities generate, consider this: according to what appears to be One80 Place’s most recent 990 filing with the IRS, the charity received a total of $6.5 million in contributions in 2014 and $6.4 million in 2013. They currently have $10.5 million in land and buildings, and their staff salaries come to $3.3 million, which alone would provide a year’s worth of housing for more people than are in Tent City, even at Charleston’s insanely inflated rental rates. So, to me, it’s absolutely shocking that the director of the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition can tell The Post and Courier, apparently without any irony or self-awareness, that the people who are coming to Tent City with food and supplies on a daily basis are creating a “toxic” situation of “dependency” with their actions.
But maybe this shouldn’t be too shocking. Going back to One80 Place’s website, you can see who sits on their board. It’s largely bankers, realtors, developers, and investment managers. These are people who, frankly, aren’t interested in any solution to homelessness that challenges the capitalistic status-quo notion of housing as a commodity that should be bought and sold instead of a basic human right.
This isn’t to say that the people in these organizations don’t operate with the best of intentions or that they haven’t done anything to help the homeless in this area — I’m sure they’ve done both. I’m simply unable to find a way to understand the continued existence of these organizations without thinking that, on some level, the real dependency problem lies in how we approach charity.
This all leads to a very serious question: When you donate to a charity, are you helping people or an organization? I think this is a valid question. After all, if the goal of a group is to “end” something, and 30 years and tens of millions of dollars later, there’s still something to be ended, I’d call that counter-productive at best and a failure at worst.