Tent city was founded on good deeds, faulty logic

Dave munday Robert Hilton, 47, leaving tent, says Family Services got him an apartment in West Ashley

More than a year ago, some folks from local churches started showing up at a vacant piece of property on Meeting Street to feed the homeless.

They’d bring in grills, cook hot dogs and serve anyone who’d listen to a short sermon.

They call those hot dog ministries.

The idea caught on at this particular spot on Meeting Street, and more churches started sending help. When the weather turned cold, some congregants brought coats and eventually tents to help people who had no shelter.

It was, by definition, a very Christian thing to do.

But eventually the property where they gathered was sold, so the city gave these groups a permit to serve food under the Huger Street overpass — which is technically a park.

What happened next? Yep, word got out that people were showing up with all sorts of free stuff at that particular spot nearly every day. The homeless who’d been living behind the Wal-Mart on James Island, or in the woods of West Ashley, moved downtown to partake of this manna from Heaven.

Many of them decided to set up camp and stay. After all, why bother moving when there’s an unlimited supply of food and clothing being trucked in daily?

And that’s how Charleston ended up with its very own Tent City.

Which local officials are now trying to clean up.

Homelessness is a growing problem in the Lowcountry — we will know how much in a couple of months, when HUD releases its latest census of local homeless.

Whether it’s getting worse or not, Tent City sure makes it look that way.

Now, it’s hard to fault people of good intentions, folks who only want to help. But some local experts say that charity helped set up a cycle of dependence — and centralized it.

If you look at organizations that battle homelessness on a daily basis, you’ll see that’s not how it is done. Take One80 Place, which has been fighting the good fight for decades. As usual, the facility is at capacity — 170 beds filled nightly. But One80 Place is intended to be a way station, not a destination.

People are allowed to stay as long as they are working with case managers to find a way out of their predicament, which means getting a permanent place to live. The average stay is 46 days.

Stacey Denaux, the CEO at One80 Place, wants to get that down to 30 days.

“We’re not just keeping people,” she says, “we want to move people into housing.”

And that’s the goal.

Homelessness is in some ways, Denaux says, a symptom of our success. More people want to move here, and it’s not just the upwardly mobile types. A lot of people simply come to town and end up homeless.

That’s life in the big city, which is what we are fast on our way to becoming.

On Monday, Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey and state Rep. Wendell Gilliard will convene the Lowcountry Task Force to Combat Homelessness.

It’s a good start, a sign the community is serious about solving this problem. Gilliard has been on this for more than a decade, when he was a city councilman.

He says one big problem here is developers buying trailer parks and old apartment complexes, kicking out the long-time tenants.

He says we have to provide more places for people who cannot afford the ever-increasing rents in the Lowcountry — be it more shelters or tiny houses.

And that’s similar to what people who work in shelters will tell you. In the end, there is only one solution: money.

One80 Place, one of the pre-eminent charities tackling this problem, gets by on a $7.5 million budget — $5 million from the feds, $2.5 million in private donations.

On that rather modest budget, One80 Place serves thousands of meals a year, and helps people off the street and into their own home. They have a good track record: More than 85 percent of their clients are still living on their own, under a roof, a year after leaving the shelter.

But one place can’t do it all, and frankly there aren’t enough shelters around — especially in places like North Charleston or Summerville.

Denaux says cities and counties that have been most successful in solving the homelessness problem are the ones who are putting money into it. That’s not a pitch for her nonprofit. There are plenty of good programs around the Lowcountry committed to helping get people off the street, but not enough providing temporary beds.

Elected officials can take their pick of who and what to fund, and that’s what they are going to have to do if they want to stop this epidemic. They have to fund more transitional housing and programs that will break the cycle.

The sad truth is that simply feeding the homeless is only a bandage. Tent cities can be broken up, but this complex problem isn’t going away until we come up with more permanent housing solutions.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com