It's been several weeks since Mayor John Tecklenburg announced a plan for housing the residents of Charleston's Tent City, and homeless advocacy organizations are still racing to meet the city's 60-day deadline to clear the encampment. Another key part of the plan to curb homelessness in Charleston was unveiled Feb. 17 with the launch of the Homeless to Hope Fund, which will be used to gather donations to pay for housing and supportive efforts for those transitioning from the streets to shelters and homes of their own.
Co-chaired by Palmetto Project Executive Director Steve Skardon, Morris Brown AME Church pastor Charles Watkins Jr., and local businesswoman Linda Ketner, donations will go toward costs associated with securing housing for the remaining Tent City population. According to the city, Homeless to Hope Fund contributions are tax-deductible and can be made online at homelesstohopefund.org.
With a potential source of funding streaming in, those working to house the residents of Tent City are making slow but steady progress.
"Since we started this process, we've gotten about seven people from the encampment into housing. Seven is definitely a step in the right direction, but there are 100 people out there who need help as well," says Anthony Haro of the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition. "We're trying to take it chunk by chunk, maybe 10 people at a time every week, and try to focus on that, see if we can free up apartments and services that are available in the community, and help people get out of the encampment as best we can."
Haro estimates that about 30-40 individuals in Tent City will require permanent housing along with supportive services, such as health-care and career counseling. Case managers are currently working to find affordable housing for those still without homes and assessing the needs of each person transitioning out of Tent City. While Haro says an overwhelming majority of the homeless individuals he surveyed in the encampment are in favor of relocating to a permanent home, the specific needs of each person vary. Before placing an individual in housing, case workers evaluate a candidate's health, history of homelessness, income, and viability for employment to determine their level of need. For some, finding a home is just a matter of paying a security deposit or setting up utilities, but for those described as "chronically homeless," more help is required.
"When you have a large need, you have to know where to start because if you don't have enough resources to help everybody, you have to make decisions about who to help first," says Haro. "The Homeless to Hope Fund is a really important part of that because when it comes down to it, we've gotten seven people into housing with our current resources, and hopefully we can free up more with just our current resources, but without getting new financial resources to pay for housing and to help pay for supportive services, we're not really going to be able to provide the level of support we need to help these persons out, especially within 60 days."
Amy Wilson, vice president of development at One80 Place, says that about 20 people moved into the shelter during the first phases of the Tent City cleanup which focused on the smaller encampments. Since Feb. 2, 17 people have moved out of the shelter into permanent housing, but the effort to find homes for the newest residents of One80 Place is ongoing.
"In general, our average length of stay is about 46 days here, but for people that are moving straight from the street or from the encampment, that's probably going to take a little bit longer to stabilize and find them housing," says Wilson, who is optimistic about the shelter's progress and the financial assistance that could come from the Homeless to Hope Fund. "It's not quick and easy, but I think we can do it as a community. It does take money, so I'm hopeful, and I really hope that people will contribute to the mayor's fund because it's really about financially helping people get assistance. A very important piece of it are those ongoing supportive services for people once they move out of the shelter or an encampment or whatever it may be."
According to Haro, a big part of securing housing for the area's homeless population is maintaining healthy relationships with landlords who may be reluctant to open their properties to someone currently living on the street. For this reason, it's vital that case workers pay careful attention to the needs of both residents and owners when coordinating new housing.
"The way it works is if we can keep these relationships good and then these landlords trust our supportive service case managers, that helps landlords feel comfortable about renting to someone who maybe doesn't have a very savory rental history or credit history. They know that they can feel more comfortable about it because we can pay up to two-months of a security deposit for them in case, for whatever reason, something is damaged or if it doesn't work out and they have an empty unit," says Haro. "It's kind of funny. When we talk to landlords about the process, they're like, 'Man, I wish I had that for all of our tenants.' A lot of the landlords that we work with are really happy about the process. Sometimes it doesn't work out. There are some unfortunate incidents, but those are really rare, actually, which is a great thing."