North Charleston is hiring a homelessness coordinator. Proponents say more resources are needed. | New
NORTH CHARLESTON — Along Tanger Outlet Boulevard, construction continues on the 72-bay Topgolf facility, which is expected to be a premier entertainment venue. Next to this site, land has been cleared for a $200 million mixed-use development that will include apartments, hotels and restaurants.
In a small wooded area across the street, cardboard boxes help create a makeshift home in an encampment for those who have nowhere to live.
Juxtaposition is becoming an increasingly common site in North Charleston, the state’s third-largest municipality. As the city continues to grow, so does its homeless community.
To address the issue, North Charleston recently hired a homelessness coordinator who seeks to connect homeless people with resources, such as mental health care and identification, indicating to some a city effort to resolve the problem. However, the effort is drawing mixed reactions from homelessness advocates who applaud the decision but say few resources are being devoted to the issue.
Proponents say hiring a coordinator should only be a first step. They hope the city will engage in other solutions, such as creating a shelter. There is no homeless shelter in North Charleston.
“It’s great,” said Aaron Comstock of Uplift Charleston, a group that has for years organized weekly distributions of food, clothing and hygiene items. “But are they going to be active in creating spaces for the homeless, like a shelter?”
North Charleston, home to over 100,000 people, has long had a large homeless population.
The latest point-in-time count, conducted in 2020, indicated that there were 4,287 homeless people in South Carolina. The report concluded that 323 people in Charleston County were homeless, a slight increase from 318 unsheltered in 2019.
Although there are no reports for 2021 and 2022, elected officials and advocates say the homeless population is growing and becoming more visible as new developments move tent communities to more visible areas. .
New projects on Tanger Outlet Boulevard, for example, camps for displaced homeless people who resided on previously undeveloped property, Councilman Michael Brown said.
Rising housing costs, job loss and mental health issues are a few factors that homelessness advocates say are contributing to the rise in homelessness.
The problem has long been visible in some sections of North Charleston, such as along the southern section of Rivers Avenue near the CARTA Superstop at Cosgrove Avenue. There, the former United Methodist Cherokee Place served as a hub for social services.
Some homeless people live largely out of sight in their encampments, like the one behind the Walmart Supercenter on Rivers Avenue. This place is among several well known to police, elected officials and residents.
The new town coordinator, Brandon Lilienthal, has the experience necessary for the task at hand. Lilienthal, a Burke High graduate who earned a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from South Carolina State University, previously held a similar position at the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center. The North Charleston position was created based on an executive decision by Mayor Keith Summey, who told a city council meeting months ago that Lilienthal had been hired to help the city figure out what she can do “to help (the homeless) move beyond where they are.”
Lilienthal said her goal is to listen to people to understand their needs, then connect them to needed resources. Lilienthal spent the first four weeks in her new role doing just that, visiting tent communities and getting to know those in the city with no place to shelter.
People’s needs vary. Some homeless people are in North Charleston but want to return to their hometowns, often in other states. A homeless man who had traveled to the Charleston area from Memphis worked at Walmart but quit his job due to illness. The man said he had checked with a few shelters, but none had a place available. Lilienthal put him in touch with a homeless program in his hometown.
Others needed help obtaining official documents. Lilienthal said a common need was to get proper identification.
“I’m just going to try to help them achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves,” Lilienthal said.
The new city coordinator also recognizes the importance of connecting these people to mental health resources. The Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center is partnering with the City of Charleston in an effort that allows therapists to visit homeless communities and speak with people who may be in need. Lilienthal hopes to establish a similar partnership in North Charleston.
The task, however, is a tall one, given the hundreds of homeless people who have been reported in point counts. Not to mention the ones that never show up in the reports.
Some homelessness advocates say one city coordinator is simply not enough.
Since Lilienthal will be working one-on-one with individuals, it appears her role will be that of a sort of case manager, said the Reverend Kara Stewart, executive director of the nonprofit Neighbors Together which has been providing for years food, clothing, rental. support and other services.
In this case, the city will need about six case managers in order to effectively meet a large number of homeless people, Stewart said.
“It’s definitely a bigger investment that needs to be made if that’s the approach they want to take,” Stewart said.
Meanwhile, plans to create housing for the homeless in North Charleston have not materialized.
Neighbors Together wants to transform a building it owns on Reynolds Avenue into a transitional housing space for single mothers. But these plans were blocked by the refusal of the community, which wanted a chance to influence the project. The building also needs a rezoning to accommodate residential use.
The organization was able to help four women who came to the association this week in need of housing assistance, one of whom had received an eviction notice. Temporary housing space is needed for those who are on the verge of losing their living space due to high housing costs, Stewart said.
“It would be a safety net,” she said. “At the moment there is no safety net.”
In May 2021, when the city council discussed using federal COVID-19 relief funds to support nonprofits serving the homeless community, Summey spoke about the need for a shelter in North Charleston. At the time, the mayor expressed a desire to work with Charleston County to transform the former prisoner release center on Leeds Avenue into a center that can accommodate homeless people. These plans have not seen any real progress.
“Nothing has materialized so far,” city spokesman Ryan Johnson said.
Brown, who applauded the city’s decision to hire a coordinator, said establishing a homeless shelter in North Charleston should be a tri-county initiative because such a site would likely serve the homeless. of the whole region.