On the same day every January, hundreds of volunteers and nonprofit workers venture out into the far corners of South Carolina with one mission: count how many people are living on the streets or in homeless shelters.
The report from this year's count won't be released until the end of the month, but early data shows organizations counted about 20 percent fewer homeless residents than last year, which appears to be a significant decline in the state's overall homeless population.
All four of the regional service coordinators in the state who orchestrated the count are holding that figure at arm's length, arguing the annual count is not an exact measure of homelessness. They said it's nearly impossible to count every single homeless person living here, so the decline is probably much less dramatic than the report suggests.
Still, there is reason to believe homelessness is being addressed more efficiently across the state as organizations move to the so-called Housing First Model, which prioritizes placing people in stable homes before they address other issues such as unemployment, addiction or mental illness.
"That’s been a big shift statewide," said Anthony Haro, director of the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition in Charleston. "We do have very successful housing programs that we’ve been focusing on more and more and getting better at recently."
The approach made a big impact in Charleston in the spring of 2016, when newly elected Mayor John Tecklenburg led the effort to clear a large homeless encampment known as Tent City under an Interstate 26 overpass. By working with homeless organizations across the Lowcountry, the city relocated the residents to temporary shelters and then quickly placed many of them into permanent housing.
The city built on the momentum by setting up regular meetings with local organizations to continue coordinating services, and implemented a special municipal court to handle cases involving homeless people facing minor charges.
"We’re heading in the right direction, but we can't let up," Tecklenburg said. "We have to keep collaborating and working together."
Making progress or 'treading water'?
Haro and other service providers in the state's largest counties are cautiously optimistic about the recent progress. They said, at best, they're transitioning slightly more people out of homelessness than they are taking into their systems.
Bottom line, though, the Housing First programs appear to be working so far in several communities with large homeless populations, such as Charleston and Greenville counties.
"They are working, and they work well, but it’s almost like we’re treading water," Haro said. "We need to scale them up."
Greenville's United Housing Connections began implementing the approach about a decade ago, and Chief Development Officer Lorain Crowl said its success is leading other nearby counties to consider it.
She said it costs the organization about $6,000 a year to put an individual in a home and provide them with support services. If the same person is left on the street, the chances are much higher that they'll be hospitalized or arrested, which she said is more of a drain on public funds.
"The players here really believe in the model," she said. "Both our city and county housing authorities have been receptive and are looking at ways to replicate it even further in the Upstate."
That's important because if Greenville remains the only place in the region with comprehensive services to transition people out of homelessness, people will continue to flock there for help.
The same is true in Horry County.
Joey Smoak, executive director of the Eastern Carolina Homelessness Organization, said there's an influx of grants from the the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund Housing First programs. But because Myrtle Beach is a major tourism destination, it's always drawing large numbers of homeless people from across the region to look for work.
"The influx of homelessness, especially in Horry County, is never ending," he said. "Are we housing more people every year? Yes, absolutely. ... It’s just, the numbers don’t seem to subside."
Not a catch-all solution
One thing that appears to be key to any Housing First program's success is the level of coordination between different service providers in a community. In many cases, that's a big transition for homeless shelters that had been operating as de facto drug rehabilitation programs, educators and life coaches.
The Housing First strategy was implemented in Horry County around the same time the largest homeless shelters in Myrtle Beach consolidated into one organization called New Directions about four years ago. It now uses HUD grants to move shelter residents into permanent homes, and then coordinates with other organizations to provide services such as addiction counseling and job training.
"I think the most important thing was recognizing that we couldn’t do it all," said Kathy Jenkins, executive director of New Directions. "It takes a lot of great partners who are just as committed as we are to see people get a fresh start."
But the programs aren't so simple for other organizations around the state to adapt to, such as the Homeless No More family shelter in Richland County.
Lila Anna Sauls, the executive director, said the family shelters offer on-site services, such as child care and school specialists so parents can focus on getting back on their feet. If families are ushered too quickly out of the shelter system and into their own apartments far away, they can't access those services as easily and might end up right back where they started, she said.
"A family legitimately needs more support services," she said.
Plus, the whole concept of Housing First hinges on the availability of affordable housing, which presents a challenge in thriving housing markets, such as Charleston. If demand for housing is high, landlords aren't typically as willing to lower their standards for formerly homeless people who might have criminal records or past evictions.
"Those are barriers that are hard for us to overcome when the housing market is so strong," Haro said.
But he said he's encouraged by Tecklenburg's revival of the Mayor's Commission on Homelessness to spearhead new housing solutions in Charleston, Summerville, Mount Pleasant and North Charleston.
"I have a lot of hope that the commission is going to bring more collaboration between local governments and more involvement financially to actually fund more housing programs," he said. "We do need more of that."