By Mike McCombs
Homelessness is a problem in Beaufort County, just as it is nearly everywhere in the country. And many believe it’s getting worse. But just how big a problem is it?
Turns out that’s a question to which nobody has the answer. But it looks like that’s about to change.
Volunteers affiliated with a Beaufort County group called the Residential Empowerment Coalition will participate next week in a Federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sponsored Point-In-Time (PIT) Count in an effort to establish a count of the Beaufort County homeless population. This will be the largest community-based primary data collection attempted in Beaufort County.
Ana Ramirez is the Outreach Specialist for the Beaufort County Human Services Department. She’s also the PIT Count Coordinator for Beaufort County, working with the REC.
As an illustration of how little real data there is to go on, Ramirez said the last time there was a count in Beaufort County was a number of years ago. And the total number was 17 – for Beaufort AND Jasper counties combined.
“The count is important, Ramirez explained. “Without the data for the count, you cannot go through HUD for funding for programs that prevent homelessness or help the homeless.”
Ramirez said that the United Way of the Lowcountry, the Salvation Army, the Deep Well Project … any organizations that deal directly with the homeless … are eligible to request funding from HUD.
“Right now, those organizations in this county that deal with the homeless don’t get federal funding because they have never had a count,” she said. “This is a golden opportunity to bring in the federal dollars that we desperately need.”
As an example, Ramirez cited a pilot program of the County’s Human Services Department through the Beaufort County Detention Center.
People from Human Services talk to and work with inmates in an effort to prevent their return to the streets. Currently, what funding the program has is through an alternate source.
“When all this is said and done,” Ramirez said, “I can say to HUD, ‘hey, we need to fund this program, we need to pay someone to administer it.’ We could justify an entire salary for an employee just to run a program like this.”
Ramirez said there is no guarantee a request for funding would be approved. But as of right now, there’s zero chance for any funding because the organization can’t even request the money.
“The HUD count would help fund programs in our area that organizations currently don’t have the resources for,” she said. “Crisis management programs, in particular.”
Ironically, the REC only exists because of a different crisis.
“The REC came about through COVID-19 relief funding though the United Way of the Lowcountry, emergency relief assistance that went to aid housing-insecure individuals,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said when the United Way distributed those funds, it presented the opportunity for more than 20 organizations to come together as the REC. Then the REC, choosing Ramirez as PIT Count Coordinator, came to the table and said, “We need to perform the PIT Count.”
Ramirez said the reaction from everyone involved has been positive.
“The enthusiasm has been inspiring,” she said. “Everybody was like, ‘Yes!’ It’s been peaceful. Everyone has come together and helped.”
The count itself will happen Wednesday evening, Jan. 25. For a person to officially make the count, among other things, volunteers must be able to pinpoint where they spend the night on Wednesday.
Volunteers will work in several different ways.
Some volunteers will physically go to where the homeless are, visiting encampments law enforcement has identified as a place people are living.
Other volunteers will set up tents in places homeless populations are known to gather, allowing those people to come to them. Ramirez said these counts can be difficult. Volunteers must distinguish between those people who are needy and those that are actually homeless.
And still there is a third way volunteers will be able to count. HUD allows volunteers to count five days before and after the official count date.
An example of this method Ramirez cited involves a Bluffton church that hosts a soup kitchen on Wednesdays and Fridays. On Wednesday, the actual count day, volunteers can interview those at the soup kitchen. And then Friday, two days later, they can count any homeless people that didn’t attend on Wednesday and that aren’t duplicates.
The information is documented on smart devices, as well as paper, and submitted to HUD.
“HUD gets it and makes sure all the information is properly filled out and there are no duplicates,” Ramirez said. “Then they give us a final count, based on everything we’ve collected.”
There’s little doubt that final count will exceed 17.
“Just to show how of this may be this time around, the City of Beaufort has given us a list of 20 names,” Ramirez said. “These are not people they have been profiling. These are just people that they run into.”
Ramirez said she’s expecting a large number, though honestly, she said, she’s not sure what that means.
There is no formula to try and account for people that are missed in the count. The number they get is the number they will have to use to get funding.
“That is unfortunate because we know that will not be the full number,” Ramirez said. “There will be more.”
Ramirez said volunteers won’t be turned down. For those who want more information or want to volunteer, contact Ramirez at firstname.lastname@example.org
“This in and of itself is just the first step toward solving the problem,” Ramirez said. “It’s a slow road, but this is the first step.”
Mike McCombs is the Editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.