By Susan McLarty
Recent lively debates during County Council meetings have sparked conversations about adequate outdoor shelter for dogs in Greenville County. Hundreds of dog-rescue advocates described harsh conditions with lean-to shelters that led to frostbite and even death. The discussion identified a dual-reality for Greenville. In one reality, Greenville is an award-winning tourist destination. In another reality, Greenville is a place where it is legal and acceptable for a dog to suffer. The question of how to define adequate shelter resulted in a unanimous decision by County Council to pass the ordinance that provides reasonable protection from weather exposure. The unresolved question is: Who else is lacking adequate shelter, in addition to our four-legged friends?
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” visited Greenville in April 2017 and said, “Without stable shelter, everything falls apart.” Desmond was speaking at the United Ministries’ Uniting for Change Luncheon on behalf of the growing majority in our country who live below the poverty line and receive no housing assistance. Since receiving the Key to the City from Mayor Knox White, Desmond has transitioned to co-teach with this year’s Uniting for Change Luncheon speaker Kathryn Edin.
As one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers, Edin unveiled in 2011 that in any given month there were 1.5 million families, with about 3 million children, with cash incomes below the extreme threshold of $2 per person per day. Take a moment and consider what you might spend on a cup of coffee per day and contrast this with purchasing necessities like food for less than the cup of coffee. The rise in extreme poverty has increased by 4 percent since 1996 when welfare was reformed.
In Greenville County, there has been a 62 percent rise in the poverty rate since 2000 with the number of children experiencing homelessness in Greenville County Schools increasing from 582 in 2011 to 942 in 2017. Edin documents that homelessness is rising across the country, which leaves families with little to no options. The loss of a job was the primary precursor to a spell of $2-a-day poverty coupled with the cost of rental housing increasing 6 percent and wages declining by 12 percent over the past two decades.
Yet the stories shared in Edin’s book, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” co-written with H. Luke Shaefer, exemplify families who are workers: All had worked or were working, but the loss of job caused a downward spiral. In Greenville, the Miracle Hill Rescue Mission has 130 emergency shelter beds for men who are rebuilding their lives. On average, there are 40 men working full time in service jobs downtown, while living in emergency shelter, who are not able to access safe affordable homes. According to a report released in March by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the U.S. has a shortage of more than 7.2 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low-income renter households. Only 35 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households.
The challenge of addressing the loss of the social safety net since welfare reform, housing instability, and low-wage labor is at the heart of why Edin calls for a new conversation, as well as to finish the job started in 1996 to transform the social safety net. The expertise Edin will share on April 19 will provide our community the ability to dig deeper in our understanding of not only our deficit of homes affordable to incomes but also our dependence on low-wage labor in the midst of our high-powered economy.
Susan McLarty will begin her tenure as Greenville’s first homeless coordinator on May 1. She also serves on the United Ministries executive board as the chair of congregational relations, chair of advocacy and education for the Greenville Homeless Alliance (a newly formed coalition with over 80 community stakeholders), commissioner with the Greenville Housing Authority, and member of the Downtown Rotary Club.