Shining a Light on the County's Homeless

PICKENS COUNTY — Most Pickens County residents would have difficulty stating they have seen 106 homeless people in a year’s time, much less the night of Jan. 27, when Housing and Urban Development performed its Point in Time survey to track the number of homeless people in America.

On that night, 106 individuals were recorded as living without shelter in Pickens County.

“From my perspective it’s shining a light on a problem very few people in Pickens County are really aware which exists, which is a homelessness issue,” said Karen Culley, vice president of Community Impact with United Way. “We are seeing a lot of people sleeping in abandoned buildings, people with children living in their cars. This needs to shine a light on this issue because we don’t see the homeless here.”

While it might seem a stretch there would be individuals living in these conditions, the survey answers shed a great deal of light.

A single mother did answer that her residence, along with her 2-year-old, is her vehicle in Easley. In Pickens, a 30-year-old woman lives alone in a home that has been deemed “not meant for human habitation” by authorities. Two women and three children are living in a tent between Easley and Pickens as you read this article.

Of the 106 homeless counted, Culley said HUD will almost undoubtedly trim that number down because some will not meet the strict guidelines of HUD, such as those living in a “double up” arrangement. HUD will use the numbers to formulate a figure that will be requested for its budget in fighting homelessness.

The PIT count is conducted by a group of volunteers, including the United Way of Pickens County, which took on the count some five years ago by request. For one evening and night, they go out into the community to find, track and survey those who volunteer their residential status.

Volunteers from Upstate Warrior Solutions joined in to search wooded areas for tent “cities,” populated by those who do not want to be found for one reason or another, including having children and avoiding Social Services.

“Five or so years ago when we began working on the PIT count, it lead me to realize there are more families or single parents with children out there than the numbers would lead you to believe,” Culley said. “Most people, when you say the word homeless, think of single men with possible alcohol or drug problems, but that just isn’t the case. This is a family issue, this is a woman issue, this is a child issue.”

Is this an accurate count of the homeless in Pickens County? According to Culley, it could be more accurate.

“The United Housing Commission of Greenville asked us five or six years ago to help with the PIT count because no one was conducting it in Pickens County. We took it on because we needed to know what’s going on in the community and in Pickens County this is a difficult number to gauge because there is no shelter or a fixed location like a bus station,” Culley said.

“I would rather do this over a longer period of time. There are many agencies in Pickens County frustrated because we all know we see more than what happens to be found in a one night count,” she added. “With a longer count, we would have a much more accurate number for our community, but it’s certainly higher than 106.”

One of the survey questions asks the reason(s) for being homeless. Nearly half of the answers related to an inability to pay rent or utilities followed closely by an inability to find work or the loss of employment. Family issues also made up a significant portion of responses while alcohol or drug abuse was listed on only one survey.

A second portion of the survey asked where the night of Jan. 27 would be spent.

The overwhelming majority — 42 responses — indicated a “doubled up” situation, a number HUD will not consider. Responses of an abandoned building or a building with no utilities, hotels, automobiles or a “place not meant for human habitation” — accounting for nearly 10 percent — were also listed by those surveyed.

Culley pointed out that once you know what to look for, it becomes hard to not notice when someone is homeless.

“Once you pay attention and know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to spot the homeless in Pickens County,” Culley said. “Drive through the parking lot late at night at Wal-Mart and you will find people who are sleeping in their vehicles, with their children. You have to look because there just isn’t a central place where the homeless would congregate like in big cities, such as a shelter.”

Almost all the service agencies for Pickens C0unty are in Easley and Pickens plus there are no shelters.

“If the weather was warm when the count is conducted the number would be higher because a lot of folks have to go to Greenville during the cold weather,” Culley said. “There isn’t a lot of coordination between agencies here in Pickens County, which is something we as organizations need to fix. But this is a rural community and it won’t be like New York City or an urban area where the homeless are on the streets. Here, the homeless are hidden because the places they can stay are hidden and out of sight.”

Culley feels headway can be made with the right efforts.

“First we have to recognize there is an issue and support the agencies who are in a position to help, along with volunteering more,” Culley said. “We need more emergency housing, more transitional housing, and support the efforts out there to combat it.”

Reach D. C. Moody at 864-855-0355.

This article first appeared March 18, 2016 in the Easley Progress.