During the week of January 23, while students enjoyed two blissful snow days, some members of the Charleston community faced a challenge: finding shelter from the cold while experiencing homelessness.
The biennial Point in Time Count, sponsored in Charleston by the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition, is a census aimed at gathering data about the homeless population. Community volunteers and Continuum of Care providers such as Crisis Ministries and the Charleston Trident Urban League worked together throughout the week to interview members of the homeless community, using the night of January 23 as a reference point to gather data on homelessness in Charleston.
This data will be used by Continuum of Care providers to evaluate the effects of homelessness and to obtain funding from HUD, allowing them to continue helping individuals with housing needs. In addition to information essential for care providers, the PIT count also provided volunteers a chance to connect with the community and learn about the issues affecting its members.
“We strongly believe in people-first language,” Maggie Szeman, assistant director of the Center for Civic Engagement, said. “I think the minute we begin connecting with each other on a human level, we recognize the importance of addressing these issues because they are issues that could impact anyone.” According to Szeman, this connection and the awareness that it facilitates are crucial to finding long-term solutions for homelessness.
“Being homeless is kind of stigmatized, like these people are not necessarily all there or scary…but that’s not necessarily the truth,” Jillian Loftis, a volunteer from the Bonner Leaders Program, said. “It’s not usually something that’s so easily preventable.”
“I thought about how similar the people I was interviewing were to everyone else,” Evan School, a volunteer from Crisis Ministries, said. Both he and Loftis found that “people who find themselves homeless are just that—people.” They met college graduates, military veterans and fans Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey.
“I met three people who were veterans who had been without a home for more than two years,” Loftis said. “Three—that feels like such a big number now that I have a personal rapport with those people.”
This rapport emphasized what Szeman hoped every volunteer for the PIT count would recognize: “Everyone has a story, and everyone is susceptible to some of these circumstances. It doesn’t take much. It takes the loss of a job, an unexpected illness, debilitating illness, natural disaster, any number of things and we could be in those same shoes.”
Individuals involved in the PIT count agreed that communication is a key step in helping resolve the issue of homelessness. “I would encourage everyone who reads this to ask a homeless person on the street to dinner,” School said. “Talk with them over a meal. You will learn much more about life from them than you will from your textbooks.”
The next PIT count will occur in 2016. Results for this year’s count will be available on the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition’s website. In the meantime, students interested in getting involved with similar initiatives and projects to help the homeless in the community may visit the Center for Civic Engagement or Trident United Way, both of which have resources to help connect students with opportunities based on their interests and skill sets.