Charleston officials launch plan to clean up Tent City, curb homelessness

Mayor promises to ‘return area to normalcy within the next 30-60 days’


The clean-up effort at Tent City began Friday morning - DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters
  • The clean-up effort at Tent City began Friday morning

Local leaders and advocacy groups have partnered to launch an initiative that aims to address the growing homeless encampments on the peninsula.

In recent months, residents on the peninsula have watched as the area on Upper Meeting Street known as Tent City gained more and more residents. A new plan from the City of Charleston announced Thursday intends to do away with the encampments within the next 30-60 days by working to provide resources and shelter to those without homes.

On Friday, the state Department of Transportation will begin a clean-up effort, removing trash and debris from the encampment on the east side of Meeting Street near the I-26 ramp. As the owner of the property, the DOT has held jurisdiction over the homeless encampments, which has kept the city’s hands tied until now. As part of the new plan, the City of Charleston will gain legal control of the property through what was described as a low-cost lease agreement with the DOT. This new lease will be presented to City Council later this month.

Over the next several days, those living in the smaller encampments east of Meeting Street and near Lee Street will be offered immediate shelter at One80 Place and that area will be cleared. During the 60-day time frame, trained outreach teams will also be working to help relocate the nearly 100 individuals living in the main encampment west of Meeting Street.

Currently, One80 Place has openings for 13 new applicants, but the number of available spaces changes regularly as men and women transition out of the program. Area officials are actively seeking locations to provide additional shelter space for those living in the encampments. Plans include establishing a low-barrier shelter, which would have fewer restrictions, for homeless residents, until more permanent housing options become available. Typically, low-barrier shelters do not require residents to follow rules such as abstaining from alcohol or other substances.

Deputy Chief Tony Elder with the Charleston Police Department says he and his officers have been speaking with those set to be relocated and several individuals have already willingly left their tents to seek more-permanent housing. Although a recent fire and alleged stabbing reported in the encampments have raised the issue of safety for those living in and around Tent City, Elder says he is not aware of any ongoing criminal issues or specific indications of danger.

The city will also establish a website, which will allow citizens to make donations and organize volunteer efforts. The initial charity fund will begin with $50,000 — consisting of a $35,000 contribution from the City of Charleston with the remainder coming from the 2016 Charleston Inaugural Committee.

“The plan is a road map to get us started. I am grateful for the assistance One80 Place and the Homeless Coalition have provided in creating this way forward,” said Mayor John Tecklenburg in a statement released by the city. “Not only will those without shelter have the resources they need to begin re-ordering their lives, but we are doing this in a way that will return the area to normalcy within the next 30-60 days. We are a caring city, and we are approaching this situation with attention and respect for everyone involved.”

But even after Tent City is a thing of the past, Charleston must still address the ongoing issue of homelessness in the community. The latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimate that the number of unsheltered homeless individuals in the Charleston area has more than doubled over the past 5 years. To combat this rise in homelessness, the city’s plan also includes appointing a citizens “blue ribbon” commission to examine what long-term solutions are available to ensure that Charleston doesn’t end up in this same situation again.

Anthony Haro, executive director of the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition, says the best solution is a “housing first” strategy, which provides homes for those without a permanent residence and then follows up with supportive services, such as career counseling. Similar programs providing permanent housing for chronically homeless individuals have been met with success across the country.

In the “Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness,” the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness reports that “For people experiencing chronic homelessness, the research is overwhelmingly clear that permanent supportive housing using a housing first approach is the solution.”

Research cited by the council includes one study of housing first practices in New York City, which found that participants placed into supportive housing were less likely to spend time in shelters, hospitals, jails, or treatment facilities. The report states, “The costs of housing subsidies provided by the program were offset by reductions in total costs for shelter, jail, welfare, and Medicaid services used by program participants.”

Explaining the benefits of a housing first strategy, Haro says, “The traditional model, if you will, is that we try to help people overcome addiction or mental health issues get treatment and attend life-skills class in a shelter setting or even off the streets. That method just is not successful, but those supports are so much more effective in housing.”

He adds, “The housing first model, basically, is that as quickly as we can we identify affordable housing and we help transition individuals and families into those housing units through rental assistance. Depending on the case, if someone has income and can eventually support themselves, maybe they just need help with a security deposit, maybe the rental investment is not that significant.”

In North Carolina, an 85-unit apartment complex used to house homeless residents around Charlotte earned increased funding from City Council after saving taxpayers almost $2 million in just its first year by reducing the time tenants spent in local hospitals and jails. Although this strategy for tackling homelessness has proven to save money in other cities, it still requires a significant investment up front. With a possible solution in sight, Haro hopes that city and state agencies in South Carolina will begin to invest more in supportive housing.

“We need more funding to provide housing support for people in Charleston and the surrounding communities as well. The Tent City is an example of the fact that we don’t have enough,” he says. “I think it would be very beneficial for a community to have an actual development created specifically for chronically homeless persons, whether that be in Charleston or the surrounding counties. I think that’s a really effective model that Charlotte pursued with actually building housing for persons experiencing chronic homelessness. We do need more funding, and we’re hoping to get more commitment from the city, the county, and especially the state.”

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard agrees that housing followed by counseling services and job programs is key to transitioning individuals away from homelessness. He supports Charleston’s plan to address Tent City, but he also says cooperation is required on a state level to combat homelessness.

“I always tell people that any plan is better than no plan at all. I applaud the mayor on his approach. This is what we call grabbing the bull by the horns, and it’s needed,” he says. “I only wish that the governor would act in such a way. I sent her a letter a couple of months ago asking her to declare a state of emergency here in the state of South Carolina as it pertains to homelessness because they are doing it in other states. It’s been very effective, so maybe now she’ll answer.”

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