Beaufort County is among the wealthiest in South Carolina and home to world-class tourist spots. But amid the luxury, thousands of homeless adults and children barely get by, advocates believe.
Later this month, they will hold a count to find out how many people are living in tent camps, pay-by-the-week motels, abandoned buildings, and on friends' couches. The counts occur every two years and help determine federal funding.
Social-service providers say the event lets them reach vulnerable people who might not know help is available. It also sheds light on the causes of homelessness.
"There are a million things it could be," said Fred Leyda, a facilitator for the Beaufort County Human Services Alliance, a consortium of more than 120 area nonprofit groups and public agencies. "But until we get a better handle, percentage-wise, on what we are dealing with, we are shooting in the dark.
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"Is it mostly people from California? Or is it people mostly from here who have fallen on hard times? If that is the case, what leads to that?" he asked, citing mental-health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, and job loss as likely factors.
The count planned for Beaufort County is one of thousands that will occur across the U.S. for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Data from the homeless census, collected over a two-week period in late January, influences how much federal money communities receive to help the homeless.
The 2011 count indicated Beaufort County had 211 homeless people. Based on that count, which probably missed the majority of homeless, Leyda believes the actual number is at least 10 times higher.
Elliott Brown, executive director of Family Promise of Beaufort County, says it's impossible to count everyone.
"We are projecting several hundred homeless people," she said. "There are at least 100 (homeless) kids in the school system. That usually means another 100 or more kids at home, not of school age. Then you have their parents. Then, there is another group of people living in abandoned buildings" and tent camps.
Betsy Doughtie, executive director of The Deep Well Project, a Hilton Head Island organization that aids the needy, says the agency periodically helps homeless men in need of a shower, clothes or food. However, she says there are "many different types of homelessness" in Beaufort County.
"There are people who lost an apartment due to not paying rent, people who are couch surfing -- who don't have a permanent home ... and are staying with friends for a while until they get back on their feet," she said.
The federal government has several definitions for homelessness. They include those living in a place not meant for habitation, in shelters or in transitional housing, those fleeing domestic violence who don't have a place to go, or families with children who are unstably housed.
Local agencies will count the homeless using three methods. A street survey on Jan. 26 will send volunteers into known tent camps and abandoned buildings in Beaufort, Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island. Volunteers also will interview people on the streets and those living in motels, if possible.
Leyda said officials will ask the Beaufort County Detention Center and local hospitals how many people at those facilities identify themselves as, or appear to be, homeless.
The third is an event Jan. 26 at the Boys and Girls Club of the Lowcountry's Beaufort location, where food, clothing and medical and dental services will be available to area homeless people.
Volunteers are needed to carry out the homeless census on Jan. 26. Training sessions will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 12 at Love House Ministries in Beaufort, and on Jan. 14, at 6 p.m., at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church.
For more information or to sign up, call Family Promise at 815-4211.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.