How Do We Deal with a Tent City?
People have been living under the Pete Hollis Bridge since it was completed. Providers of services for homeless people knew people were living there and often could call individuals by name. Even though having a community living under a bridge was not ideal, at least providers knew where to find someone who might need mental health or other services. Many of the conditions changed when the community-at-large found out about the “Tent City.”
Service providers who knew about the encampment before it was “discovered” realized that people who lived there were not viable candidates for existing shelters because of a variety of issues. These are the same issues that make solving the problem of the Tent City so challenging.
Homeless people who have pets cannot stay in homeless shelters in Greenville. None of the shelters can accommodate pets. Even having dogs or cats cared for elsewhere does not work for people whose pet is their family. They don’t trust anyone else to care for their pet as they do. They need to be with their pet regularly and know what their pet is doing. People would rather live in a car or under a bridge than to live without their pet.
Couples who cohabitate often cannot stay in a local shelter…together. Some shelters will not house couples who are not legally married. Almost all shelters have few, if any, provisions for a man and woman to be together. The man must stay in the men’s shelter while the woman stays in the women’s shelter. For couples who depend deeply on each other for their emotional and physical survival, this solution just does not work.
Some people have severe mental or addiction issues that make staying in an established shelter out of the question. Shelter staff rightly chooses to protect the residents they have by not allowing a potentially dangerous person to stay in the shelter.
Some people have already stayed in every shelter and cannot return because of repeated infringement of the rules. Others prefer to be their own masters rather than live within the rules and regulations of a shelter that could provide safe beds and good food.
All of these issues are being discussed by homeless providers. How can the residents of Tent City be helped in a gracious and caring way without jeopardizing the existing powerful and compassionate services already being offered by all the providers of homeless services? What are the long term solutions for the issues that the Tent City highlights? Conversations go round and round as solutions are suggested, tweaked, and either cast aside or implemented in a timely, gracious, and caring manner.
Having a Tent City is not acceptable in a caring community that values its quality of life for all citizens. Coming up with short term solutions are challenging at best. Making life comfortable under the bridge is not a solution to ending homelessness. So…do you open a shelter with few rules? How do you handle those people who cannot live with others because of various issues? What do you do with pets, cohabitating couples, and others who don’t fit the general shelter population? What do you do with people who just don’t want to be helped?
The conversations continue. Representatives from Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, Triune Mercy Center, United Ministries, Greenville Mental Health, and Our Eyes Were Opened, Inc. have developed a system to have the best and most experienced case workers go to the Tent City to discern how to help those who live there. The providers have committed to work together as needed and to not allow their own existing rules in the established shelters to impede the process. They are working with law enforcement officials, Greenville County, United Way, and others to come up with a gracious and caring way to eliminate the Tent City, knowing that some of the residents will simply move elsewhere.
The ideal long term solution for this population is best illustrated by Reedy Place on Hudson Street with its twenty-three apartments for people who have severe addiction or mental health issues. It is a Housing First model that demonstrates that people are more likely to deal with their issues when provided with safe and secure housing first. This is proving true in Greenville and especially in the state of Utah which has reduced its homelessness by 75% using the Housing First model.
The solutions mean thinking outside of usual practices and committing to ending homelessness with compassion. This can happen!

NOTE: This guest editorial by Beth Lindsay Templeton appeared in the Greenville News on July 6, 2014.

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