As Charleston's tent cities grow, other communities find tangible solutions 

Under the Bridge

click to enlarge Over recent months, numerous homeless encampments like this tent city near Huger Street have popped up across the Charleston peninsula

Jonathan Boncek

Over recent months, numerous homeless encampments like this tent city near Huger Street have popped up across the Charleston peninsula

Glennis Brown pulls on a bright orange reflective vest as he steps out from his tent underneath the Highway 17 overpass. He says he and his twin brother Lennis have been doing construction work around the city. Glennis smiles as he rubs his hands together because today's payday. Walking from tent to tent, Lennis divides up bags of bottled water and canned beans left at the makeshift campsite. He says what they really need is toilet paper.

Tears roll down Lennis' face as the cold, morning air hits his eyes, and he talks about how he and his brother were musicians. He talks about their brief brush with fame and how they ended up here — in one of the tent cities of Charleston.

It was 1989 when the two Newark, N.J. brothers joined with DJ King Shameek and released their first album. Performing under the name Twin Hype, the group gained attention with the single "Do It to the Crowd" and toured the U.S. and Europe for about two and a half years. But a stint in prison derailed Twin Hype's shot at lasting success.

"We got caught riding with the wrong guy, and he was holding something," says Glennis as he washes his hands in a narrow creek that runs past his tent. "Now we're kind of like our own Scared Straight program. People point us out to their kids and say, 'They were going somewhere, nice cars, all that. Now look at them.'"

Ironically, one of the last tracks released by Twin Hype before their incarceration was titled "Wrong Place, Wrong Time." While the brothers couldn't have known they'd end up living on the streets in Charleston, the song's opening lyrics are eerily relevant today: "There's a change in the weather/ I feel the temperature drop on the block, nose froze like cold pops/ Eyes on for honeys, money's on my mind/ It ain't funny living on nickels and dimes."

A New Deal

What remains uncertain regarding Charleston's multiple tent cities is how best to manage them. According to the Charleston Police Department, encampments beneath Interstate 26 and Septima Clark Parkway are located on state property, and in the past, efforts to remove tent cities such as these were initiated by state agencies. In March, homeless individuals in a campsite behind One80 Place near Interstate 26 were forced to abandon their encampment following a notice from the S.C. Department of Transportation that the area was scheduled for cleaning. Many of those sleeping in tents were able to find help at the nearby shelter, but the dissolution of the camp did little to solve the city's homeless problem.

According to the latest statistics reported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of unsheltered homeless individuals in the Charleston area has more than doubled since 2010. Currently, as many as 165 people are without shelter on any given night in the Lowcountry. But as tent cities continue to sprout up along the peninsula, what can be done to find a lasting solution?

According to Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the end of homeless encampments is less a matter of policing and more a matter of policy.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

"In many communities, you will see that the approach that is taken is a criminalization approach. People want to simply sweep these encampments out of public view and pretend that the problem doesn't exist or will go away if you destroy people's ability to shelter themselves or make their lives uncomfortable or put them in jail. What we have seen is that those attempts are almost never successful. They simply force people into more dangerous situations," says Tars. "If you arrest people for attempting to shelter themselves, you are just putting one more barrier between that person and getting out of homelessness."

He adds, "It just scatters the problem, takes people from where at least you know where they are and can try to provide them with services that will get them off the street permanently, disperses them, makes them harder to find, harder to serve, and ultimately they still have the same needs for housing."

Other cities across the country have found success by addressing the underlying causes of homelessness rather than placing the burden of responsibility on local shelters and the police force. These innovative programs have not only helped improve the lives of those struggling with poverty, but have also been proven to save taxpayers money.

This year, the City of Charleston began enforcing a new ordinance that effectively criminalized panhandling on the side of a city street. Those caught passing or receiving items from a vehicle in the street face a sizeable fine or jail time. Taking a different approach to panhandling, the City of Albuquerque, N.M., partnered with a nonprofit organization to offer those asking for money on the streets exactly what they needed ­— a paying job.

Several days a week, drivers travel around town in a van and pick up panhandlers and offer them a day's pay pulling weeds, picking up trash, and performing other tasks to beautify their city. Those who participate are paid about $9 an hour by the city. According to PBS Newshour, the program was the idea of Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

"I was driving in my car one day and I was at the stoplight and there was a gentleman holding a sign that says, 'Will work.' So I came back to the office and I told my staff, 'We`re going to take these folks up on their offer,'" Berry told PBS. "Instead of being punitive and giving somebody a ticket for standing on the corner and panhandling, why don`t we give them a better opportunity?"

In addition to offering more chances for the city's homeless population to earn a living, Albuquerque is one of several cities in the country that provides permanent, supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals. While many may object to what they see as the government offering these individuals a "free ride," research shows that free housing pays off in the long run. A study conducted by UNC Charlotte found that an 85-unit apartment complex for the homeless in Mecklenburg County saved taxpayers $1.8 million in its first year by reducing the time tenants spent in local hospitals and jails. The program's continued success was enough to win increased funding for housing expansion from Charlotte City Council.

"When you add up the cost of arresting somebody, putting them in jail, having them often in detention for weeks on end because they can't pay bail because they're homeless and have no income, all of that and the additional cost borne by the healthcare system for people drawing on emergency services because they're exposed to the elements, the cost of leaving people on the streets or criminalizing them while they're there is two to three times greater than to simply provide them with housing," says Tars. "In many communities, the new housing that's being created is luxury condos and McMansions and isn't tailored to the actual needs of the people living in the community. We all want to attract higher-income people to raise the tax base. That sounds great on paper, but if it means you're only building high-income housing, it means more of the people in your community are getting squeezed more and more, and that puts them at risk for homelessness."


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