A chill hung in the morning air at the CARTA Superstop where a woman sat quietly on a bench. Nearby, a large blanket and bags of belongings served as clues to her current living situation.
"How are you feeling today?" Melanie Harrell asked as she knelt down in front of the woman, getting on her level while holding a clipboard and bags of hygiene products.
The woman covered her face and responded by shaking her head.
Harrell, housing services coordinator with the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition, was at the North Charleston bus stop on Tuesday morning to survey the area's homeless. She was patient with the woman, who is usually talkative.
"Today’s just not a good day for her," Harrell said later.
Having been homeless for years, the woman is one of the streets' most vulnerable. She is a candidate for permanent supportive housing, which is subsidized living with support services. With just a few openings a month, there's a long waiting list and not enough space in the Lowcountry.
"She will be going into permanent supportive housing as soon as we have more spots available," Harrell said. "If there were apartments available, we'd be able to move her in."
The annual Point-in-Time Count is conducted during the last week in January and helps those who fight homelessness identify the greatest needs when coordinating housing programs and other assistance at a local level. The national count is required for communities that receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The survey, which includes people living in shelters and on the streets, helps the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition quantify the issue for local governments, said Anthony Haro, executive director of the coalition.
"We really want to use this information as an education point for the community to say what we have dedicated to homeless services and housing for homeless persons is not adequate yet," he said. "There's people still on the streets in numbers that are too large."
A report of this year's findings won't be released for several months.
In 2016, the survey found 550 people experiencing homelessness in Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton, Hampton, Beaufort and Jasper counties. That number marked a decrease from 2015, when 606 homeless individuals were counted. Yet nearly half of those surveyed were living outside of shelters in 2016, a substantial increase from previous years.
Statewide, the Lowcountry represented 11.6 percent of the state's homeless population, while the Upstate was home to the largest proportion of homeless people. Greenville County's homeless population made up 20 percent of people counted last year.
A strong volunteer turnout helped the coalition reach homeless individuals who were more widely dispersed throughout the Charleston area this year after the removal of the encampment known as "Tent City." Surveyors this year saw small encampments of people sleeping outdoors, Haro said. Their efforts involved canvassing towns and cities with a focus on service sites.
"It was a lot different this year. Last year it was pretty simple to locate most people living outside," Haro said.
The count has limitations, he said. It represents one point in time, when in reality, homelessness is not static. It also doesn’t include individuals who live with friends and family or in hotels.
Tuesday morning at the Superstop, Harrell was joined by staff from One80 Place and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. A man who said he's been homeless for "a good minute or two" agreed to take the five-minute survey. He answered questions such as how long he's been without a place of his own, whether he's a veteran, and whether he uses alcohol or illegal drugs. When asked about his medical history, the man pulled aside five layers of clothing to show Harrell a tumor that's been on his shoulder since 2008.
Their conversation ended with Harrell sharing how to apply to one of the area's housing authorities. An outreach specialist can help him fill out an application, and Harrell can write a letter on his behalf, she said.
"I appreciate what you're doing for me," the man said before they parted ways.
Later at Marion Square, 60-year-old William Brown was happy to see Harrell, whom he's known for a few years. Brown recently started a new job as a dishwasher, but he still spends most nights wherever he can find cover outside. He keeps a stash of blankets and a sleeping bag. Securing a place of his own would mean no longer walking around aimlessly. He said he's putting in the "footwork" to make it happen.
"I’m looking forward to it because I’m tired, really," Brown said.
Brown previously spent time at One80 Place, but it didn't work out.
Many people who live outside don't fit well into a shelter environment, Harrell said, which underscores the need for constant outreach. She pointed out an outreach coordinator with One80 Place who was engaged in a casual conversation with a man at the edge of Marion Square.
"This is another way to connect people to services. And also, too, it’s trust. A lot of people have complex issues and don’t trust and don’t want to participate in services. So we’re able to break down a lot of those barriers," Harrell said.