Mount Pleasant needs a tent city, too

Boxes of food that were left at the tent city on Meeting Street sit out in the rain earlier this month. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

Ed Westwood and his Mount Pleasant neighbors have been making regular pilgrimages across the Ravenel bridge every weekend, delivering tents and supplies to Charleston’s Tent City. Well-meaning though they are, they would be better off looking at what is going on in their own town — or not going on.

The City of Charleston Housing Authority owns 2,574 units, and provides assistance to about 1 in 10 city residents.

There are exactly 28 units of public housing in Mt. Pleasant. That single 1952-vintage project, Edmund Jenkins, is owned by the Charleston Housing Authority, by the way.

Google homeless shelters in Mount Pleasant, and what do you get? A list of shelters in Charleston and North Charleston. Mount Pleasant has none, save the occasional freezing night the Hibben Methodist Church opens its doors to the homeless.

There is the Shelter Kitchen and Bar in Mount Pleasant, a nice place on Coleman Boulevard where steak and eggs for brunch will cost you $24. The Shelter Kitchen isn’t for the homeless at those prices, but over the Christmas holidays you could drop off supplies there for the Tent City of Charleston Initiative.

Better idea: The Shelter Kitchen is across the street from the Shem Creek site where local residents are making a worthy stand to stop a too-tall office building. Until that is sorted out, the disputed site would be a perfect place for Mount Pleasant’s own tent city — and they wouldn’t even have to lug all those tents across the river.

What say you, Mount Pleasant?

The town’s churches and residents responded with compassion to the crisis they saw in the encampment under the overpasses. Ed Westwood’s Hibben Methodist and Point Hope United Methodist brought food and clothing. Kim Williams helped create the Tent City of Charleston Initiative, which has almost 2,400 members on Facebook. William Hamilton, a lawyer active in liberal causes, is leading the campaign to build “tiny houses” all over the Lowcountry for the homeless.

And so tent city grew to about 100 tents — and so did the chaos. As the rubbish mounted, some volunteers insisted the homeless return a bag of garbage in exchange for new donations. There were reports of drugs, alcohol and crime. There have been stabbings and tents set on fire.

“When night falls, it’s the story you don’t see,” said one 30-year-old homeless woman who said she was leaving tent city. “I am afraid for my life. It has gotten to the point that I carry this,” pulling a switchblade from her jeans.

The city was right if overdue in declaring tent city must go. The homeless need help, but tent city isn’t helping. The homeless need homes, not tents. They need jobs, not a handout. They need treatment, and they need to take more responsibility for their lives.

As tent city winds down, Mount Pleasant’s good samaritans should turn their attention to the housing needs in their own backyard.

Mount Pleasant is very different than the village where I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. We moved there from Charleston because it was affordable and had good schools. We fished Shem Creek and played baseball under the lights at Alahambra Hall. The schools were segregated, but the town was diverse, a word no one used in those days.

Today, Mount Pleasant has been transformed, for better and worse, into the ninth fastest growing municipality in America.

Among South Carolina’s 10 largest cities and towns, Mount Pleasant is the most affluent (household income: $76,000), has the lowest poverty rate (8 percent) and is the least diverse (91 percent white, 5 percent black). The median price of a house is $349,200, exceeded only by Hilton Head’s $447,900, according to U.S. Census numbers. The demographics of Mount Pleasant and Hilton Head, in fact, look a lot alike, except Mount Pleasant has almost twice as many people.

For all those who came, many others got squeezed out or left out. There was no Joe Riley in Mount Pleasant pounding the table for affordable housing, and very little was built. The town’s flirtation with the kind of density that could create affordable housing produced a backlash in the latest election that remade the Town Council.

Mount Pleasant’s rents reflect the dearth of affordable housing. Zillow, the real estate website, pegs the town’s median rent at $2,385, the highest among the state’s largest cities.

In her State of the Town address this week, Mayor Linda Page announced a new task force on “attainable housing,” affordable housing being no longer attainable in Hilton Head on the Wando.

Here’s hoping it has more success than the last task force on workforce housing, which failed because of high land costs and the Great Recession.

So where are all those low-paid workers in Mount Pleasant’s malls and fast-food restaurants to live? Places like North Charleston, where an apartment goes for half the price. They are in the car next to you every day in the rush hour gridlock on Highway 17.

And in tent city, lawyer Hamilton says. Not Charleston’s tent city, but Mount Pleasant’s own secret tent city, home to fast-food workers among others. Exactly where it is, he’s not saying.

Steve Bailey is a former Boston Globe columnist who has returned to his hometown. He can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com.