A key to addressing homelessness in Beaufort County is knowing the scope of the problem.
Given its nature and the variety of forms it can take, that's not been easy to do. On Jan. 26, volunteers will reach out to the homeless, trying to attach a number to the problem. The goal is to determine how many people are living in tent camps, pay-by-the-week motels, abandoned buildings and on friends' couches.
The survey, done every two years, is part of a national homeless count through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The count in 2011 documented 211 homeless people; in 2009, 17 people were counted.
Fred Leyda, facilitator for the Beaufort County Human Services Alliance, a consortium of more than 120 area nonprofit groups and public agencies, said he thought the number of homeless today could be 10 times higher than the 211 people counted two years ago.
We should be long past surprise at the notion of homelessness and hunger in relatively affluent Beaufort County. Credit in recent years for growing awareness goes to such groups as the Human Services Alliance; Family Promise of Beaufort County, which works to help and shelter homeless families; the Hunger and Homeless Coalition, whose work includes opening local soup kitchens; and Backpack Buddies, which helps feed hungry schoolchildren.
Community stalwarts, such The Deep Well Project and Bluffton Self Help, also do a lot to help.
Betsy Doughtie, Deep Well's executive director, points to one of the hurdles to reaching people in need -- the 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," Doughtie said.
Federal definitions 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 not in stable housing.
This year's count will include sending volunteers to known tent camps and into abandoned buildings in Beaufort and Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island. Volunteers also will interview people on the streets and those living in motels, if possible.
Leyda said officials would ask the Beaufort County Detention Center and local hospitals how many people at those facilities identify themselves as, or appear to be, homeless. The Beaufort County School District also is a resource.
In addition, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Lowcountry will hold an event Jan. 26 at its Beaufort location, where food, clothing and medical and dental services will be available to the homeless.
Our thanks to the groups and individuals who are tackling this issue. The good news for the homeless and hungry here is that help is available. The key is to reach them and to understand the scope of the problem so that we can make sure there is enough help -- and the right kind of help -- to make a difference.