Last week in Columbia, opponents of Gov. Mark Sanford's stimulus stalling created a tent city in protest. It was a figurative representation of desperate times for South Carolinians. In Charleston just a day earlier, a surveyor found a real example of that desperation: a dead homeless man lying in a drainage ditch under the Interstate 26 overpass.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard (D-Charleston) has introduced legislation in the Statehouse that would study how the recession has increased the state's homeless population, and he's proposing state-funded tents for those who may be turned away when shelters reach capacity.
Gilliard is worried about people being turned away due to space limitations as tough economic times drag on.
"We need to see if we're prepared to handle the onslaught of people," he says of the study, which would be completed in January if the bill is approved by the legislature.
Quantifying the number of homeless impacted by the recession could help justify increased funding to expand and renovate shelters, Gilliard says. The tents he's suggesting would be able to withstand harsh temperatures, particularly through cold winter months.
State agencies that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are awaiting the results of their own extensive studies on homelessness, according to Crisis Ministries Executive Director Stacey Denaux. Her local organization houses up to 84 men and 45 women and children and operates a fully-equipped soup kitchen.
Every two years, recipients of federal money are required to conduct surveys analyzing both the population that seeks services and those that may be without shelter. The 2009 surveys were completed in January, but numbers won't be available until mid-year.
"All homeless shelter providers do a huge statewide, exhaustive survey," Denaux says.
The purpose of this study, according to the guide provided by HUD, is to help "identify community-specific service needs and gaps, access additional funding and resources, and increase public awareness of the challenges to ending homelessness." The study is expected to be available to those providing services, as well as state, regional, and local governments, so it should provide some of the numbers Gilliard is looking for.
Denaux says Crisis Ministries has not had to turn away individuals seeking shelter since the economic downturn.
"Certainly over the last 25 years we have seen an increase, but really our clients haven't changed. It is the same types of people we have been seeing," she says. "Everyone has been waiting for that big story of swarms of people showing up homeless, and fortunately it just hasn't happened yet."
As for tent-like structures, "Crisis Ministries would not be interested in pursuing that avenue at this point," she says. A lack of outdoor space at the nonprofit's Meeting Street location is only one concern for the proposed remedy.
"I doubt the officials in Charleston would allow for such a structure. There is hurricane season and flooding to deal with," Denaux says. "I don't know if it would be a humane type of solution."
Other areas of the country have already established tent cities to deal with a surge of homeless people, particularly in communities like Fresno and Sacramento in California.
Although agencies in Charleston have not been inundated with a rising homeless population, they have seen an increased need for other services like food, utility, and rent assistance. Groups working with the Lowcountry's homeless will be meeting this week to start applying for more than $830,000 in federal stimulus grants for the tri-county region to prevent homelessness, says Tracy Doran, president of the nonprofit Humanities Foundation. The money is directed to the region by HUD, which has only had about $80,000 to provide annually to these programs in the past, she says.
Through its ShelterNet program, Humanities provides aid to those on the brink of losing their homes, offering rent or utility assistance and counseling. Doran says the group doesn't have specific numbers, but it's seeing a surge in referrals for aid. And groups Humanities often collaborates with have told the group they're tapped out.
"The folks who provide emergency assistance are strapped," she says.
People who have been forced out of their homes in the recession may be able to avoid the homeless shelter because they have a support system where they can stay with friends or family, says Doran. When they can't help anymore, that's when the shelters may see numbers grow.
Denaux says there's been an increase in the soup kitchen line at Crisis Ministries, and the shelter is not alone, according to Sue Hanshaw, CEO of Tri-County Family Ministries.
"We served about 243,000 hot lunches to families in 2008, and I already know numbers are going to be close to 300,000 for 2009," she says.
Tri-County also provides utility assistance services, which have been in high demand in recent months, Hanshaw says. Many times, keeping the lights on for families on fixed incomes can prevent an eviction notice.
The North Charleston-based organization also features two transitional living apartments, where families are allowed to reside for 90 days while they reintegrate to society and find stable living situations, all with the help of the staff counselor.
"We never turn anyone away. We will always provide people with resources," Hanshaw says. "We will always try to find a safe place for families."