Bolton: Identify, then help the homeless

Associate EditorJanuary 21, 2010 

I GET calls and letters from time to time suggesting that every homeless person is a deadbeat who refuses to work. But the 2009 homeless count gives a much more realistic - and truthful - profile of some of our area's most vulnerable residents.

Many of the homeless in a 14-county area that includes Richland and Lexington counties are people genuinely in need. They include veterans who've helped defend our nation, families with children and the mentally ill. The overwhelming majority - 88 percent - are fellow South Carolinians. Some have been shipped to Richland from other counties, but many you see in Lexington and Richland are locals - our brothers, sisters, family members and friends who grew up in local communities, attended local schools and, for whatever reason, became homeless locally.

The question is, how are local advocates, providers, governments and others going to meet the need? For starters, they need to know who the homeless are and what their needs are.

That's where the 2009 Homeless Count conducted by volunteers comes in. It's designed to raise community awareness and, more importantly, help agencies and governments develop a plan. There's no need to do a count if we aren't going to do anything about it, right?

The Midlands - particularly Lexington and Richland counties - should waste no time pulling together to respond. There are lots of groups, individuals and governments doing some good things, but the area's best response will come from a unified, comprehensive effort.

As this community debates the best way to do that - a transition center planned for downtown Columbia is the ideal starting place - we have a decent understanding of what the homeless population looks like, thanks to the Homeless Count.

As of Jan. 29, 2009, there were 1,368 homeless people in the 14-county area, according to the count. Of that number:

- 1,006 were from Richland and Lexington counties; 853 were found in Richland.

- A third were unsheltered, meaning they were living on the street or in places not fit for human habitation.

- About 30 percent had been homeless more than one year.

- 83 percent were adults.

- 18 percent were children younger than 18.

- 27 percent were in families with dependent children.

- 17 percent were chronically homeless.

- 11 percent were severely mentally ill.

- 20 percent (23 percent in Lexington and Richland) were veterans.

- 19 percent were victims of domestic violence.

- 66 percent were African-American.

- 27 percent were white.

- 28 percent were identified as having a disability, with many having more than one.

As you can see, the needs are wide and varied. There is no cookie-cutter response to helping the homeless, some of whom suffer from multiple maladies, overcome their problems and become productive citizens. That's why it's imperative that the many providers, agencies and governments unite to make a difference.

People identified as homeless in the survey included those who were living on the street; staying in emergency or transitional shelter; living in substandard housing or housing not fit for human habitation - without running water or electricity, for example; temporarily living in a hotel or motel room paid for by someone else (voucher); or temporarily in a hospital or psychiatric hospital who will have nowhere to live upon release.

The local count, part of a statewide effort required by the federal government, covered the 14 Midlands counties of Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun, Chester, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lancaster, Lexington, Newberry, Orangeburg, Richland and York.

With more than 1,000 of the identified homeless in Lexington and Richland counties, it's obvious that leaders in those jurisdictions must take the lead. While governments - the two counties, Columbia and other municipalities - must play a key role, the idea isn't for them to do the job on their own. There are many providers and advocates in this community with the passion, desire and expertise to help the homeless. But they don't always have the necessary resources or the community support they need. That's where government comes in.

Next to opening and funding a winter shelter, the best thing the city of Columbia did was to allow The Cooperative Ministry and the USC Medical School to operate it.

Although residents near the shelter along the river never wanted the facility in their midst and were promised it wouldn't be permanent, it's now going to be there at least another three years. But, guess what? The neighborhoods haven't complained, in part, because The Cooperative Ministry is running a solid operation, meets with the neighborhood associations weekly and has improved communication and trust.

Sounds like a key element that needs to be part of any comprehensive plan: Government must help provide the opportunity and then get out of the way and let the experts do their jobs.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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