Tents/tarps. Behind businesses or in the woods. Abandoned buildings. Makeshift lean-tos. Vehicles that appear to be set up for sleeping. Walking or riding a bike while carrying bags, backpacks, garbage bags, suitcases, blankets, bedrolls. Panhandling, with or without a cup or a sign.
These are some of the signs and sights volunteers looked for as they canvassed for homeless people in ... New York? Atlanta? Savannah? No -- they were looking right here in Beaufort County, amid the glorious scenery, stately homes and buildings. The number they found might surprise you.
Results of all canvasses were due Friday, and Fred Leyda, facilitator for the Beaufort County Human Services Alliance, guessed the total will be about 400. And who is homeless might surprise you.
"The face of homelessness is changing," Leyda said. "We used to see mostly single males -- now we're seeing many more moms with young children." He noted that the school district has identified 109 homeless children among its students.
Volunteer teams canvassed in Burton, Beaufort, St. Helena Island and south of the Broad River to help with the federal Housing and Urban Development homeless count that is done every two years.
"We took to the streets to go into tent cities, check abandoned buildings and so on to get an accurate count of our homeless population, which can help us get HUD dollars into our community to help the homeless," said Chrystie Turner, who was team leader for Beaufort and who serves as director of community impact investment for United Way of the Lowcountry.
Turner remembered finding a man's personal effects set up in an empty car dealership. Outside the door was his small Christmas tree, discarded after the holiday was over.
The same weekend, Jan. 26-27, the "Everyone Counts" event put on by the Community Services Organization took place at the Beaufort Boys and Girls Club. Doctors provided flu shots; dentists helped with emergency dental care; and clothing, food, resume help, haircuts, hot showers, hygiene kits, information on veterans affairs and other services were provided to those in need. At the event, 120 surveys were conducted, and 71 homeless people were documented.
The services organization is a consortium of local social service agencies, including United Way of the Lowcountry. At the request of the Human Services Alliance, the group was formed in 2009 as part of the Together for Beaufort County community indicators project. The goal was to help needy people who were falling through the cracks in the social service system. With each biannual housing survey, services organization members hope to capture more accurate numbers than in the past, which translates to more dollars to aid in the fight to end homelessness in our community.
Our county has shelters, mostly targeting specific groups or needs -- the Child Abuse Prevention Association; Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse for spouses, some with children; Family Promise for families; and TLC Ministries for adults with drug and alcohol issues.
"The problem with building a homeless shelter per se is that it fills up with people from other areas," Leyda said. "Also, Beaufort is 'off the beaten track' and doesn't offer opportunities for people to get out of the shelter. If they have family here, they might get help connecting to local resources; otherwise they're better off going to a shelter in a larger city."
It's hard to imagine not having a home. It's also hard to imagine that people we see every day -- men, women and children -- might be living in shelters, cars, tents or abandoned businesses.
Shelter is one of the basic needs being addressed by our United Way. If you would like to help, call Chrystie Turner at United Way of the Lowcountry, 843-982-3040.
Marge Barber is a retired journalist, community volunteer and former director of communications for United Way of the Lowcountry.