You may have seen her standing on Morrison Drive or Meeting Street at the I-26 exit ramp. She was probably wearing a grimy red nylon jacket and jeans, a knit toboggan cap pulled down over her ears and a cardboard sign hanging around her neck with the message: "Homeless — Please Help."
At her feet would be Zion, her 4-year-old, brown and black, lab-rottweiler mix, who lives with her and follows her faithfully on her daily perambulations about the city as she looks for jobs and handouts.
Her name is Brenda. She is "over 50," she says, and like many of the homeless, she does not want her identity made public. In another time, she was a housewife, with a home, a husband, two daughters, two horses, and several cats and dogs on 11 acres outside Ware Shoals. Her marriage ended in 2000, and she went back to her old work as a dental assistant to make house payments and support her daughters. But when her employer retired in 2004, she couldn't find another job, despite 17 years in the field.
Brenda lost the house, horses, cats, dogs, and her friends, who turned their backs when she fell on hard times. Her daughters moved to Louisiana to be with their father. She has been homeless for nearly 10 years.
Along the way she picked up a five-week-old puppy that had been abandoned on the side of Assembly Street in Columbia. "I thought it was a squirrel at first, it was so tiny," she said, scratching Zion on the top of the head. Since then they have been inseparable. She has been refused service at a number of homeless shelters because they cannot let her take Zion inside and she refuses to let him go. Now she's part of a small homeless camp in the wooded area behind One80 Place. She sleeps in a tent with Zion on the cold nights and sometimes thinks of the way things used to be.
"Oh God, I'd cry if I had a place of my own," she said on a blustery January afternoon, "a place with warm running water, where I could go and turn the key and be at home."
Every homeless story is different, but they all start with something broken — a broken home, a broken promise, a broken economy, a broken dream. Listen to enough stories and the themes come into focus — domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, chronic unemployment, post-traumatic stress disorder. These and other disorders have conspired to give America a vast and largely invisible underclass of unsheltered men, women, and children who shuffle along our streets, who sleep in the abandoned buildings we drive past every day, who camp in the woods and under the bridges. They see us, but we are hardly aware they exist.
Multitudes of homeless Americans live on the margins of this country's prosperity, live in the shadow of its social and economic failure. But how many? Who are they? What are their needs?
Since the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has conducted an annual Point-in-Time (PIT) Count of the homeless across America. Working through local social service agencies, such as the S.C. Coalition for the Homeless, HUD has sought to develop a comprehensive homeless policy by understanding the problem at the local level.
The Census Bureau will tell you that the hardest group of Americans to count every 10 years is the homeless. Even illegal aliens usually have addresses. The homeless are mobile, and they often wish to remain invisible and unaccounted for. The challenge of finding and counting them falls to thousands of volunteers around the nation, who fan out through their communities in the last week of January for the Point-in-Time Count, locating and talking to the homeless.
Last year's state PIT Count, conducted by the S.C. Coalition for the Homeless, counted 5,040 homeless men, women, and children. Of those, 1,806 individuals live in unsheltered conditions; this would include cars, tents, abandoned buildings, any place unfit for permanent human habitation. Another 1,781 were found in emergency shelters, such as One80 Place on Meeting Street, one of the area's three emergency shelters. And another 1,453 were in transitional housing, having moved from emergency housing and awaiting permanent housing.
The good news is that the 2014 number represents a 16 percent decrease from the 2013 PIT count. The decline was driven by a 42 percent drop in the number of unsheltered individuals.
Like many of us, the homeless gravitate to urban areas, seeking opportunities and resources. The counties with the highest number of unsheltered individuals in 2014 were Horry (575), Richland (269), Greenville (176), Charleston (109), and Florence (103).
Conducting the local 2015 PIT Count is the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition, headquartered at One80 Place. And the man who runs the coalition is Anthony Haro, a lanky 28-year-old University of Virginia grad with degrees in sociology and East Asian studies. But his interests are closer to home. Haro is an evangelist for intelligent housing policy.
For Haro, homelessness is a hidden cost to communities. "Providing adequate housing goes beyond being morally right. It's fiscally right," he says. The homeless are incarcerated and hospitalized at a much higher rate than the general population. When the homeless get sick — and they get sick more often than most of us — they don't go to a doctor. They go to the emergency room. Somebody has to pay for that.
In Charlotte, a local philanthropist put up money to take 89 homeless people off the street and put them in permanent housing, saving the local hospital system $1.8 million a year. "Housing is healthcare," Haro says. "There's no doubt that living unsheltered puts you at risk of new health problems and exacerbates old problems."
As for incarceration, not only do the homeless do stupid and desperate things to obtain a little food or money, but some of them think of jail as an emergency shelter. During bitter cold spells, such as the 18-degree nights last month, some people will commit petty vandalism and theft just to be arrested and have a warm place to sleep.
During this year's PIT Count, the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition is particularly focused on homeless veterans. Most of the homeless vets on the street today are pre-2001, but homeless shelters around the country are bracing for the wave of post-2001 veterans that is on the way. Post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself in different ways and may take years before it becomes debilitating. When it does, a person may find it impossible to hold a job or live in a normal domestic relationship. Many often become homeless.
This year, Charleston was one of 72 cities selected for Zero: 2016, a campaign led by New York-based nonprofit Community Solutions, which was created to fight homelessness among vets. Zero: 2016's goal is to put all homeless vets under a roof by the end of 2016. But for Community Solutions to provide the needed technical assistance, they must know the scope and nature of the problem. That's where the PIT Count comes in.
And Zero: 2016 is working. In November, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced that his city had ended homelessness among its veterans.
"There are communities that are getting good at this," Haro said.
As with many social problems, policy makers and social scientists understand the causes and the solutions to homelessness, but what they lack is the public awareness and political leadership to implement these solutions. In the South, with its ideology of stern individualism and personal accountability, many dismiss homelessness as the product of bad decisions, bad behavior, or lack of self-discipline. Few are willing to be their brother's keeper.
In 2010, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer made national headlines by comparing the homeless to stray animals. Until last year Charleston had an ordinance against panhandling; the American Civil Liberties Union and the Homeless Justice Project challenged it, saying even homeless people have a right to speak and carry their signs in public. The city relented.
Yes, the homeless are easy to despise, easy to scorn, precisely because they are powerless to respond and because their very presence is evidence of some of America's worst failures. Only last month Post and Courier columnist Frank Wooten bemoaned the sight of panhandlers, expressing the "gloom, frustration, and annoyance" they cause him. City Paper columnist Dwayne Green expressed similar thoughts the same week.
Counting the homeless is not something you do on a lark. It takes weeks of planning and preparation, starting with contacting local churches and social service organizations to ask for volunteers. Two 90-minute training sessions were scheduled at Charleston County Public Library in mid-January. About 50 volunteers showed up for the two sessions. While the overwhelming majority of homeless people are men, the overwhelming majority of those who came out to count them were women.
They were people like Sister Mary Trzasko, a volunteer at Neighborhood House, an outreach ministry of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church; Meg Thompson, an AmeriCorps-Vista leader with the Mayor's Office for Children, Youth and Family; Annie Bailey, who works for a local accounting firm and said, "I just want to help people. My family has always been do-gooders"; and her friend Amy Brown, "a full-time mom and a full-time student," majoring in sociology, with a focus on poverty issues. "If everybody did just a little to help, the world would be a much better place," Brown said.
Haro conducted the training sessions with a PowerPoint presentation and a laid-back professorial air. The purpose of the survey, he explained, was to improve services and identify gaps in coverage. The data obtained would justify new services and programs.
Beyond taking the names of those who agree to give them, canvassers would ask some of the homeless to take a survey to assess their health and other conditions, such as how the person came to be homeless, how long he has been homeless, whether he has any sources of income and related issues. No one is forced to give information. Many choose not to.
The Point-in-Time Count tries to reach all area homeless, including the sheltered and the unsheltered. It's the unsheltered who are of most concern to social service providers — not to mention Frank Wooten and Dwayne Green — because they are not only the most vulnerable, but the most likely to be on the streets asking for money. The unsheltered homeless are at constant risk, not just from the elements, but from disease and criminal attack.
Every December, services are held in American cities on Homeless Memorial Day, remembering those who died on the streets and under the bridges of this country. Charleston's Homeless Memorial Service is held in Marion Square and six or eight names are read and remembered each year. Next year they will read the name of Dave Thompson, a 35-year-old man who died on Christmas Eve in the camp behind One80 Place.
"He was real nice. At least he was nice to me," said Brenda, who tented near him. "But he drank too much. He was always drunk when I saw him." On the day before Christmas, he passed out in front of the fire and never waked. His camp mates found him still lying there Christmas morning.
Many times the homeless die alone in abandoned buildings, in steel cargo containers, any enclosure they can find to get out of the elements. With no one to report to, no one to account for them, they may not be found for days or weeks. Their names will be mentioned on Homeless Memorial Day and perhaps never again.
Cold is perhaps the greatest threat to the unsheltered. Even in balmy Charleston, winter temperature can plunge well below freezing. We've already had several nights with temps in the teens since November. If the cold doesn't kill, it can certainly make life miserable. When the temperature drops precipitously, emergency shelters such as One80 Place immediately fill up. The 18-degree nights in early January prompted the Charleston County Sheriff's Department to open the county work camp as a stop-gap measure. CARTA buses gave free rides to anyone who needed to get there. Even the police pitched in, offering street people rides to the camp for the night. The measure might very well have saved lives. But when the temperature dropped to 27 degrees two weeks later, county authorities refused to open the camp.
From Jan. 28 through Feb. 4, Anthony Haro and his volunteers were on the move throughout the metro area, going to dozens of homeless camps, catching up with the homeless in the places where they gather, such as Marion Square and the downtown library. But mostly the volunteers met the homeless at the service sites where they come for food and healthcare, places like the Neighborhood House on America Street, part of the outreach ministry of Our Lady of Mercy; the dining hall at One80 Place, which provides meals to residents and anyone who walks in off the street; the Trojan Labor office, which draws day laborers looking for work every morning; and the so-called Hotdog Ministry on Meeting Street, where a group of Christians grill and serve hotdogs to street people every evening.
Wherever the homeless gather in large numbers, they look like a horde of refugees from some great human disaster, a war, perhaps, or famine. In fact, they are refugees from many small human disasters. Their eyes are often dark and sunken, their clothes tattered and filthy. Some of them are missing teeth from lack of care or missing limbs from accidents and diabetes. But at places like Neighborhood House and the Hotdog Ministry they can gather casually, safe from the judgment and condemnation that greet them daily. Some of them even open up enough to tell their stories to a stranger.
Richard is a 53-year-old Navy veteran, who has lived on the street since 2012. He used to work good warehouse jobs as a forklift operator, but his health started breaking down and he lost his last job in 2006. He has not found another since. He has been hospitalized 10 times for diabetes, he said, and has had a triple-bypass. "Nobody's going to hire you when they see a record like that," he said. The police harass him for sleeping on the street. His teeth are bad and he needs to schedule a dental appointment at the VA hospital, but without a cell phone it's a challenge. "Every day is an adventure, to see how I'm gonna eat, where I'm gonna sleep," he said.
A ragged, anonymous young man in his mid-30s stood in the food line at the Hotdog Ministry in late January. He came from Boston last fall when a friend offered him a place to stay while he looked for work. But when he arrived in the Holy City, she changed her mind and said she had no room. If he had to be homeless, he decided he would rather spend winter in Charleston than Boston. His wallet was stolen, along with his ID and Social Security card, and no shelter will take him in without proper ID, he said as he stared into the distance. His arm was in a sling that day, the result of an accident that occurred while helping a friend move furniture and compounded when he tripped and fell in his campsite. He had just returned from a hospital where a doctor examined it and said it would probably require surgery.
The homeless camps are rough and dangerous places. Drug and alcohol abuse are rampant, along with violent and unstable personalities. Police, who have no qualms confronting homeless people on downtown streets, show little interest in coming to campsites when needed, several men said. In one camp Anthony Haro saw a man on a walker who had just been discharged from a hospital with a gunshot wound to the leg.
The PIT Count in Charleston ended Feb. 4. Haro and his volunteers began the laborious task of logging in the data, which will take about two weeks. The numbers will be reported to HUD, along with a list of local housing services available for homeless people.
"We use the numbers to show that the need exists, requiring continued federal and local government funding as well as private funding," he wrote in an email. "Ideally, it will show that progress is being made, but that is for the numbers to show. The community needs to be able to talk intelligently about homelessness in Charleston and the surrounding areas and having this research to point to helps in making it a collective voice instead of a number of competing opinions or differing ideas about what exists."
The final report should be available at schomeless.org in early April.
As for Brenda, a church friend who had been helping her, picked her up Sun. Feb. 1 and carried her and Zion to Columbia, where a cousin agreed to put her up in his house for a while.
"It was just so cold. It was so cold, I had to do something," she said. "He has a couch I can sleep on. He has a fenced-in yard, so Zion can be safe. I can take a hot shower. I can look for a job. I think things will be better there. I hope so."