A hidden population lives on the margins in Beaufort County -- one that struggles to feed, shelter and care for itself day-to-day.
It's a population that sleeps in cars or under tents and tarps in the woods or surfs from sofa to sofa in the homes of friends and family.
"These people are almost invisible," said Lolita Huckaby, secretary of the Community Services Organization, composed of 35 nonprofit and service agencies that assist the homeless. "They're not standing on the roadside holding a sign, but they are there. They are among us."
Fortunately, more of them are being found and cared for, said Fred Leyda, facilitator of the Beaufort County Alliance for Human Services.
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But efforts to keep them fed and provide a roof over their heads remain daunting, local homeless advocates say.
On March 13, members of the Hilton Head Hunger and Homeless Coalition plan to gather to review progress made over their first two years as a group and plan ways to better provide services.
Area churches and groups conducted a count of the homeless in Beaufort County in January 2011 to better evaluate their needs and get them help. The survey, done every two years as part of a national homeless count through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, documented 211 homeless people.
Only 17 people were counted as homeless in Beaufort County in 2009.
Getting realistic numbers in the past was difficult because traditional surveys, such as those by telephone, do not work well, said Betsy Doughtie, executive director of The Deep Well Project, which helps people on Hilton Head and the surrounding area in emergency situations.
Last year, HUD-trained survey takers canvassed the county looking for the homeless and went to places they congregate, including libraries, Leyda said.
Community service groups also sponsored events providing meals, clothing and other services to the homeless to promote the count.
"We've found more and more people who are part of this invisible population," Leyda said. "And, as a result, we're getting a better handle on what's actually happening with hunger and homelessness in the county and what they need to get them out of that situation."
Progress is being made, Leyda said. New soup kitchens have sprung up in Bluffton and on Hilton Head.
The Community Services Organization provides basic medical, dental and mental health screenings, food, clothing and other basic items for the homeless at the Charles Lind Brown Activity Center in Beaufort about every six months. The next event is scheduled for April 28.
The county, however, still lacks a permanent shelter for the homeless, who are put in motels for a short time, sleep at host churches or bused to shelters in Savannah.
In the meantime, Leyda said, the alliance hopes to develop "transitional housing options" as well as a panel of experts to help homeless people connect to resources providing housing assistance, as well as financial advice and counseling for drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness.
"We need to address the underlying causes for being indigent, whether it's mental illness, drug and alcohol use, credit counseling and recovery, job training, etc.," Leyda said.
- Homelessness in southern Beaufort County subject of gathering: March 13, 2010
- Religion News: Count, services aim to help homeless: Jan. 22, 2011
- 4 soup kitchens open in past year, dishing out help to the hungry: Jan. 16, 2012
- Hilton Head Hunger and Homelessness Coalition
- The National Coalition for the Homeless
- Beaufort County Alliance for Human Services
- Deep Well