Tent city prompts discussion on solutions to homelessness

by Diane Knich
Jan 22 2016 5:12 pm

It was easier to ignore the plight of the area’s homeless residents and the often intractable problems that pushed them to the streets before a “tent city” began growing on Charleston’s upper peninsula.

Now the problem is front and center, and advocates and local officials have a sense of urgency about finding solutions.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, held a gathering for people and groups interested in helping the homeless Friday at North Charleston City Hall. It is the second such meeting Gilliard has pulled together to shine a spotlight on the problem and brainstorm solutions. “Whether we like it or not, there is a problem in my district and it’s not new,” Gilliard said.

Anthony Haro, executive director of the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition, said his group focuses on permanent housing solutions for the homeless. The area needs permanent housing that includes supportive services for people who have been on the street a long time, he said. And it needs to help people who become homeless but are able to work to quickly get back into permanent housing, he said.

People who are homeless may have a lot of problems, he said. “But we know what works is focusing on housing first.”

Haro also said his group, which represents seven Lowcountry counties, next week will begin a count of homeless people. The results should be available by March 1.

Several people at the meeting said temporary housing measures also are needed, such as building “tiny houses,” which are portable, one-room units, and finding land on which to put them.

And Geona Shaw Johnson, the city of Charleston’s director of housing and community development, said the city is trying to find an available building, such as the warming shelter at the work camp facility, next to the Cannon Detention Center on Leeds Avenue in North Charleston, to replace the outdoor tent city.

Two CARTA buses were sent to the area and North Charleston Friday night to help transport the homeless to a warm shelter at Cannon Detention Center to escape the weekend’s plummeting temperatures, Gilliard said.

More than 100 tents have been pitched off Meeting Street — scattered between Interstate 26 and the Arthur Ravenel Bridge — and volunteers provide people living there with tents, food, charcoal grills, portable toilets and dumpsters.

Gilliard said he has asked local and state leaders to make buildings on the former Navy base in North Charleston available for the homeless.

Robert Clark, the state Department of Transportation’s district administrator for the Lowcountry, said the DOT owns much of the land on which the tent city sits, but it’s up to local law enforcement to remove people if they are violating any laws. The department is working with local leaders to find solutions, he said, but the tent city has become a problem.

First, he said, he and others are concerned a fire could start and destroy important infrastructure. He’s also worried about sanitation and garbage on the site. “It’s getting to a critical point.”

Christina Elmore of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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