Photo by Ruta Smith

Seeking Shelter

Homeless advocacy groups and local leaders have been working to alleviate hardships encountered by Charleston’s homeless communities since the onset of the pandemic, which has only made a bad situation worse for one of the Lowcountry’s most vulnerable populations.

South Carolina had an estimated 4,172 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, as of January 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of those, 275 were family households, 462 were veterans, 216 were unaccompanied young adults (age 18-24) and 942 were those experiencing chronic homelessness.

In Charleston County, officials counted 318 total homeless people living in the area, the fourth highest count overall in the state. Of those, 111 do not have access to shelter, the third-highest count.

“We’re talking about hundreds of people living on the streets in these three counties alone,” said Denise Tolbert, a local homelessness advocate. “Some don’t want to go to these crowded shelters because they are afraid of the few things they do have being stolen, others are afraid of being assaulted in the crowded spaces.”

Advocacy groups, shelters and local governments have been doing what they can in the face of steeper, and more numerous challenges over the past year.

“Part of the problem is that, unfortunately because of the pandemic, our faith partners were unable to provide warming shelters,” said Geona Shaw Johnson, Charleston’s housing and community development director. “The leadership, the mayor and City Council, felt it necessary for us to step in and help in that regard.”

The city has operated a warming shelter at the Arthur Christopher Community Center downtown, providing a safe place for people to get out of the cold and have a hot meal or two.

Other programs include working with downtown hotels to allow those living on the streets to stay in hotel rooms until affordable or accessible homes become available.

The city isn’t the only group working to alleviate the struggles of the homeless community. A new nonprofit has dedicated itself to the mission of getting every single homeless person off the streets of Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties, providing them with free services designed to empower them before summer heat sets in this year.

Tolbert has a plan for what she’s calling The Village of South Carolina Homeless Shelter and Services, a 50,000-square-foot shelter with a minimum of 125 beds in addition to an array of social services like connecting those in need to more permanent solutions, such as mental health care or work.

But, such a monumental task won’t be accomplished by one person.
“I cannot do this alone,” Tolbert said. “My plan requires the community to step up and do what they can do, no matter how small. Every little bit of help matters … I eat, sleep and dream this shelter, and I am not prideful. I have no issue pleading with the community to help me.”

To that end, Tolbert is petitioning the governor for help securing a location, which has not yet been decided. Meanwhile, the challenges continue for those without shelter.

“The pandemic has not given any relief to the homeless,” Tolbert said. “To be quite frank, it is making things worse by the day. More and more people, more and more families, are becoming homeless as days go on.”

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has prevented many organizations and churches from opening their doors to homeless people during the winter months, shrinking the number of options normally available to those in need.

“The biggest problem right now is the lack of warming shelters and churches who have decided to open their doors due to COVID,” said Aaron Comstock, founder of homeless advocacy group Uplift Charleston.

Another part of the problem is the lack of funding. According to city spokesman Ryan Johnson, North Charleston doesn’t receive any homeless federal funding due to the city’s “entitlement grantee” status. Its transfer of HUD funds, money to support affordable and accessible housing, goes to Charleston County.

Charleston leaders have put their focus less on addressing the number of shelter spaces available, and more on relieving the root causes some of the woes of those struggling to stay in housing.

“With everything else going on … the encouragement has been trying to mitigate homelessness by helping folks who are already in housing to stay in housing,” Johnson said. “An example would be helping folks pay rent to ensure those homeless numbers don’t go up.”
City officials have also added a new outreach worker, Taliah Rice, to act as a liaison between the city and Charleston’s homeless population to determine what they need in order to transition from homelessness to housing.