Working to find solution to Charleston homelessness

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard (from left) speaks with the Rev. Trevor Gary of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist, Kevin Greene and Larry Butler, chief executive officer of Sustainability Group. The men gathered at the International Longshoremen's Association Hal

South Carolina has an estimated 7,000 homeless people on any given night but has beds for only about 2,100 of them. That's a disgrace, and the government, churches and civic groups need to work together to end it, community leaders said Thursday.

"We just don't have enough places for people who are homeless," said state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston. He hosted a gathering of legislators, city leaders and those who provide homeless services in a forum at the International Longshoremen's Association Hall.

Homelessness is worsening as the state suffers through a recession that has driven unemployment to its highest level in more than 25 years.

Charleston County School District Homeless Education Coordinator Sonya Jones said the stereotype of homelessness is the raggedy-looking person pushing a shopping cart filled with his belongings. However, she said, there are people in our community who work every day but find themselves unable to pay the rent so they are forced to live with relatives. Jones said she was raised by a single, disabled parent who couldn't make ends meet so grandparents took them in.

State Sen. Robert Ford said homelessness is not just an issue for the government to fix. "Those of us who are Christians, we should be ashamed of ourselves. With the resources that the Lord has provided for us we should not have homelessness," Ford, D-Charleston, said. "This is a sad commentary on us as a city and on us as a nation."

State Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, agreed. "When folks don't have a decent place to live, it says something about our society. This is so important. It's one of the core things that everybody needs," Mack said. About 40 percent of homeless men are veterans, he said.

Stacey Denaux, executive director of Charleston Interfaith Crisis Ministries, said the shelter serves 1,600 homeless people annually, including about 400 veterans. The number of male veterans it serves has increased by 62 percent since 2007, she said.

Gilliard is a co-sponsor of a House joint resolution that calls for a statewide study of the number of homeless people in each county and how the recession has worsened the situation. The study also would assess homeless shelters in each county and determine the feasibility of using tent-like temporary shelters purchased with state funds to house homeless people on a short-term basis. The resolution is being considered by the House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee.

Gilliard also is a co-sponsor of a similar joint resolution on veterans' homelessness that is in the hands of the same committee. Both resolutions need the approval of the General Assembly and the governor before becoming law. Another bill co-sponsored by Gilliard would establish the hate crime of assault and battery on a homeless person.