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Transitional housing a solution for KC homeless, leaders say

Posted: April 11, 2013 7:05 p.m.
Updated: April 12, 2013 5:00 a.m.

A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) count of the country’s homeless will now be conducted annually to maintain year-to-year numbers. United Way of Kershaw County (UWKC) President Donny Supplee said, however, that he “doesn’t put stock in the count.”

Although Supplee likes to think that UWKC and its partner agencies are putting a dent in Kershaw County’s homeless population, the count is just a snapshot of what Kershaw County is dealing with, he said.

“There is just no good way of knowing” how many homeless people are in Kershaw County, Supplee said. “The count is flawed because you have to find people who are willing to be counted. Most homeless people don’t want to be counted.”

He said the number one issue that can affect numbers is the changing definition of “homelessness.” The latest accepted definition of “homeless” by the federal government includes people and families who are living in homes with other families. HUD didn’t include those people in its homeless count this year, which Supplee said would greatly increase the number of people recognized as homeless in Kershaw County.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires the U.S. Department of Education to double-up its definition of homelessness. The Act is more “comprehensive,” according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). Under the Act, a homeless person is defined as anyone who lacks a “fixed, regular and adequate night time residence.” The definition includes children and youth who are “sharing housing with others due to loss of housing or economic hardship;” or anyone living in “motels, hotels, trailer parks, camping grounds, emergency or transitional services, abandoned shelters, cars, public spaces, substandard housing or any place not designed for or ordinarily used for regular sleeping accommodations or awaiting foster care.”

The NCH said HUD’s previous definition, which did not include multi-family and other types of similar housing, are OK for urban communities, but are “problematic” for rural areas. Previously, the UWKC has been able to include people who lacked heating and air conditioning or water, Supplee said. Also in the works is the definition of chronic homelessness. A chronically homeless person is now considered someone who has had four “episodes” of homelessness during a three-year period for a total of at least 365 days, according to Supplee. However, most homeless people don’t keep up with that kind of information, Supplee said, adding that localities should have control of defining what chronic homelessness looks like. He said in communities with a shelter it is easy to keep a record of numbers; in a rural county like Kershaw, keeping records can be a lot more difficult.

Although HUD’s homeless count numbers have decreased during the last three years -- 161 three years ago versus 50 this year -- there is more to be done, Supplee said. He said the UWKC isn’t guided by those numbers. Supplee said he believes the UWKC is making a difference, but not that quickly.

The largest gap in Kershaw County services is a lack of transitional housing for men, a solution Supplee said might be helpful to Kershaw County’s homeless population.

A transitional housing program for men in Kershaw County would need to be a 24-hour program with a substance abuse treatment program, he said. The program would include classes similar to those taught at New Day on Mill. Such classes would help men transition out of the program as well-adjusted as possible, Supplee said.

New Day On Mill Project Manager Harriet Reid said women who are struggling to make money or find housing usually have not had the education required to get a well-paying job. Or, Reid said, they became pregnant at a young age before they knew how to take care of themselves. The lack of jobs and substance abuse are also a problem, UWKC Housing Director Marie Sheheen said. Supplee and Sheheen acknowledge that there is a drug and alcohol abuse problem among some of the homeless population, something that would need to be addressed before aid recipients could prepare to get a job or sustain suitable housing. Both Supplee and Reid said there isn’t a place for the homeless to go that it is open all day, so many congregate in various areas around the county. Reid said a center for men would “do wonders” for Kershaw County. New Day on Mill doesn’t need to increase its facility right now, she said, although there are times she wishes she had space for more women and children.

Supplee also acknowledged there might be some fear that people from other counties would come to Kershaw in hopes of getting into the program. He said the program’s goal would be to help Kershaw County residents.

“We can serve them better here in a smaller environment,” Supplee said. “We owe it to our community members to give them a second chance. Patience is required in a situation like homelessness because most people don’t end up homeless overnight.”

Relapses are a reality, he said, and there simply isn’t a way Kershaw County can help keep people from being homeless for good without a long-term care facility that can help men “get clean” and find jobs.

Long-term housing is another problem for the general homeless population. There are seven subsidized housing apartments in Kershaw County, but there are more than 508 applicants on a Section 8 housing waiting list. Not all qualify for housing, but may not be made aware of their ineligibility until they are next on the list to be placed. Some unsubsidized apartment complexes may have a small number of subsidized apartments available, Sheheen said.

Subsidized housing in Kershaw County isn’t “great,” Sheheen said, as there is currently a two- to three-year waiting list. There are a number of other locations, however, that help provide housing for those in need. Sheheen said she gives citizens looking for housing a five-page list of individuals and businesses they can call for housing. That list can be helpful if low-income citizens can afford to pay the rent and the utilities, she said. The Kershaw County Housing Authority and the Kershaw County Housing Partnership are both currently looking at how they can increase housing for people in Kershaw County. Sheheen said the housing authority is looking to transform abandoned hotels and motels into low-income housing, similar to groups in Columbia, but funding is an issue they have yet to settle.

“Even if someone can get a job, it’s still hard to find affordable housing,” Reid said. “There are no training programs that allow us to work with the homeless long term, in order to help them enroll in GED programs or further their education and show them how to apply and get jobs.”

Stable housing is key, Sheheen said, because people need rest and regular hygiene practices to be in a class or a job environment.

Reid said New Day on Mill, UWKC and all of the people and agencies working to fight homelessness and hunger in Kershaw County do it as a labor of love.

“As long as we have one (homeless person), it’s too many. There will always be a population that’s comfortable with that kind of situation, but most people don’t want to be homeless. Most want to be working and want a stable home. It’s our job to provide an avenue to services that will help,” Supplee said.

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