At around 8:30 p.m. on nights 34 degrees or below, the warming shelter across the Charleston County jail sits mostly empty.
It's still too early, says Lt. Anthony Williams of the Charleston County Sheriff's Office. Most "customers," as guests are referred to when they're not within earshot, walk in as their day draws to a close, eat a meal from the jail's kitchen, and go to bed.
The one-story facility used to function as a "work camp," where inmates who were offered the ability to work off their sentences slept before being shuttled to worksites throughout the county.
Today, in the winter months, the building's sleeping quarters are once again useful — except these guests are free to come and go as long as they're out by 9 a.m., ready to resume their lives wherever they go.
When it's open, the shelter averages 15 guests per night, according to Capt. Roger Antonio, a spokesman for the sheriff's office. Most of them are homeless men, says Lt. Williams, who oversees the warming shelter staff as part of his night shift duties.
A female deputy overseeing the shelter on a recent Wednesday night said that, until recently, the shift used to scare her. Upon arrival, guests aren't searched, so they can bring in whatever they want, and the door remains open throughout the night. She feels more comfortable this year, she says, because guests are required to check in at the desk and sign a form that explains the ad-hoc facility's rules.
As temperatures drop, other buildings across the Charleston area also morph in purpose.
Aldersgate United Methodist Church in North Charleston opens its warming shelter from January through March. During those months, the education building which hosts Sunday school classes, is outfitted with cots and backup air mattresses on nights when temps dip below 36 degrees.
"We convert the building to a shelter," says Rev. Erik Grayson. "We turn our dining hall into a men's shelter room, classroom into women's, and other space for families."
Most of the guests at the Aldersgate shelter are homeless men too, Grayson says. Now in its fourth year, he says the shelter is the church's answer to a higher calling.
"How can we follow Jesus and say we love our neighbor, and people are freezing and we have this building sitting empty and it's warm?" he asks.
Last year, the church launched a campaign to raise $100,000 for a new sprinkler system (the building isn't quite up to code, and operates on a 'fire watch basis' with the fire marshal) and a permanent shower facility to replace the shelter's shower trailer, which was virtually inaccessible during January's snow storm.
Guests can trickle in from 7 to 9 p.m., and the church offers refuge for those with criminal records who might feel uncomfortable by the prospect of seeking shelter at the jail, Grayson says.
"We eat a meal together, we're not rushed," he says. "You end up talking, telling stories, laughing together. It's not a transactional interaction as much as it is a relationship you're building."
- Ruta Smith
Hibben United Methodist Church in Mt. Pleasant runs one of the busier warming shelters in the area. Cots are set up at the church's Christian Life and Learning Center, where guests are offered dinner, breakfast, and showers.
"Guests must leave by 7 a.m. the next morning so that Hibben may prepare for the school day," the church website reads.
From March through October, Hibben offers showers, haircuts, meals, and health screenings on the third Saturday of each month.
Demand at the One80 Place homeless shelter on Meeting Street is strong year-round, staying full almost every night regardless of the weather, according to spokeswoman Amy Wilson.
"We have limited space for overflow," Wilson says. "We will go to overflow in extreme weather, but we try to reserve this for people who walk in the door late at night and are out in the elements."
Frigid stretches like the one in January, which dropped over five inches of snow on the Charleston area, can put a strain on the facility.
"You're feeding more people," Wilson says. "There's definitely a cost associated with these cold snaps that we get. It's a big undertaking."
Getting the word out
Most warming shelters rely on local media and law enforcement to get the word out about their services.
On days when the forecast looks especially bleak, Antonio sends a press release to local media announcing that the county shelter will be open for the night. Local TV stations are usually the first to pick up and disseminate the news.
Guests typically find their own transportation, though CARTA sometimes offers free rides to the shelter on short notice, often that same day. Guests can request a ride from a deputy by calling (843)-743-7200.
At Aldersgate, shelter openings are announced 24 hours in advance on the church's website and through local news media.
Stephanie M. Kelley, the executive director of East Cooper Community Outreach, asked Hibben to add the community center to the church's pickup route this summer.
"Most of their pickups were happening downtown, but we said we know we could get in touch with people who are experiencing this problem," Kelley said. "We're on the pickup route for both the hospitality and warming shelters."
Homelessness is a growing concern in Mt. Pleasant as its population tops 87,000, Kelley says. In October, a "homelessness think tank," comprised of representatives from Hibben UMC, Wando High School, and town Mayor Will Haynie, met for the first time.
"Several people from ECCO, including some volunteers, they're very concerned," Kelley says. "They feel strongly there aren't enough resources to field a growing situation in Mt. Pleasant."