Homelessness in southern Beaufort County subject of gathering

March 13, 2010 

Refuse, including an old beanbag chair and a pillow, are strewn about this site which is reportedly a camp for homeless people in a wooded area near Hilton Head's Pope Avenue between Circle Center shopping center and the Coligny Beach public parking lot.

JAY KARR/THE ISLAND PACKET

  • • 150,415: Beaufort County population in July 2008. • 33: Homeless people in Beaufort County, according to a 2007 survey. • 15: Homeless families served by Family Promise since July 2008. The nonprofit has three families on its waiting list. • 19,000: Students enrolled in the Beaufort County School District. • 82: Students districtwide considered homeless based on federal McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act standards applied during the 2009-10 school year. There were 94 homeless students in 2008-09 and 38 in 2007-08. Source: U.S. Census, the Lowcountry Continuum of Care Partnership, the Beaufort County School District and Family Promise. For more information on the Congregation Beth Yam's panel and committee, call 843-689-2178.

How to eradicate homelessness in southern Beaufort County was the topic last week at a gathering of elected officials from Bluffton and Hilton Head Island and representatives from area nonprofit groups.

A panel of the mayors of Bluffton and the Town of Hilton Head Island, as well as representatives from the Beaufort County School District, the Children's Center, the Deep Well Project and Family Promise spoke to a crowd of about 180 at Congregation Beth Yam about efforts to fight poverty and homelessness.Panel members provided an overview of the homeless in the area they serve, said forum chairwoman Twyla Sable.

"The goal of the event is to engage the community," Sable said. "We know there's an issue and that we have a number of homeless families in the area."

Sable said the congregation's Social Action Committee, which organized the event, hopes panel members and area residents will continue to meet to assess homelessness south of the Broad River and come up with ways to try to end it.

"Our ideal goal would be to have a permanent building for the homeless staffed by volunteers," Sable said.

The question remains as to how many homeless people are in the area and what the committee can do to help.

WHO ARE THE HOMELESS?

Homeless people were about 0.05 percent of the county's 142,045 residents in 2007, according to a survey conducted by the Lowcountry Continuum of Care Partnership, which provides information and resources to families trying to become self-sufficient.

Getting a realistic count is difficult because traditional survey methods, such as telephone surveys, don't work, said Betsy Doughtie, executive director of The Deep Well Project, a nonprofit organization that helps people on Hilton Head Island and the surrounding area in emergency situations."It's always going to be difficult to measure homelessness and the eradication of poverty," Doughtie said. "But we do need a shelter in Beaufort County."

Shea Heyward, a social worker at the Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts, said the school district counts homeless students by following standards in the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which defines a homelessperson as someone who does not have a regular and adequate place to stay at night. That includes those living with friends or family due to economic hardship or loss of housing, Heyward said.

"At least a dialogue starts," said Heyward, a panel member. "We're constantly working with the families and referring them to federal programs, but there is only so much we can do on a school level."Hilton Head Mayor Tom Peeples said the only official information on the island's homeless population is from the 2000 U.S. Census.

"I don't know where we're going to get good numbers from," Peeples said. "I've been asked to speak about a subject about which I know very little, but I came here to learn tonight."

Mayor Lisa Sulka said Bluffton doesn't have any policies to address homelessness.

"We all tend to overlook the problem," Sulka said. "I'm also here to learn and help coordinate efforts to boost the groups we have in place."

WHERE DO THEY GO?

Beaufort County has no permanent shelters.

When homeless people come to human service organizations, such as the Salvation Army in Beaufort or Deep Well, they are either put in motels for a short time or bused to shelters in Savannah or Charleston, Doughtie said. Her charity offered 69 motel room stays to individuals and families in immediate need during the first half of 2009, according to Deep Well's semiannual "Report to the Community."

"There are so many reasons why people are homeless," Doughtie said. "But if a homeless family has a plan, we will put them up in a hotel for a few nights, or up to two weeks."

There are at least two tent cities on the island, mostly inhabited by men with substance-abuse problems, she said. In the past three years, two homeless men died near a lagoon on the south end of Hilton Head Island, an area that had been a gathering place for the island's homeless and day laborers for years."Some of them know they can come in and take a shower and get a hot meal, but they choose not to," Doughtie said.

Family Promise, a nonprofit group sponsored by 32 churches and synagogues, helps homeless parents by teaching them financial independence and job-search skills.

The organization, which began in July 2008, also offers local families a day center in Bluffton where they can shower, make lunch, search for employment and meet with a case manager. At night, families are housed at host churches, where they can stay for a week before the group moves to the next congregation.

The program is designed to help families end their homelessness within 90 days."All of us are here today because this is unacceptable," said Emily Bugay, executive director of Family Promise. She hopes a shelter will open in Beaufort County soon.

"We all have to really work together to break the cycle," she said.

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