There were more than 3,500 people in Greenville experiencing homelessness in 2019, according to Greenville Homelessness Alliance’s Susan McClarty. Due to the pandemic and the economic upheaval it has caused, local advocates say many people in the area are now closer to homelessness than they may have ever been before.
Yet many people’s understanding of homelessness might be incorrect, says Alexandra Harris, program manager of the Interfaith Hospitality Network from United Ministries. The network works with various churches across the Upstate to house those in need. While many shelters in the area only work with one gender or one age group, IHN works to keep families together while they have to shelter.
“People assume homelessness is like a monolithic experience, but it’s very individual and it’s very unique to every person or family experiencing it,” she explains. Some families are staying in hotels or living in vehicles. Those, Harris says, are the two most common scenarios they see.
When the pandemic hit there was a real concern over what would happen to this population. For instance, the shelters in the area did not have a pandemic plan, according to Lauren Stephens, social ministries director at The Salvation Army. The teams behind these groups had to learn quickly.
At the beginning of the pandemic, The Salvation Army, which operates two shelters in Greenville, decided to close its residential campus to the public while still operating at capacity. They’ve been able to maintain a zero COVID-19 case count across its shelters, says Stephens.
“The part that makes Greenville extremely unique is that even in the midst of a global pandemic, where everything is still shut down, we still had positive exits out of homelessness,” says Stephens. “Our work cannot stop because the rest of the world stops turning.”
Tim Brown, vice president of adult ministries at Miracle Hill, explains that they chose to stay open to the public during the pandemic and even organized a quarantine area for COVID-19 positive people who were experiencing homelessness. “We have moved mountains over the last few months,” he said, citing the communication between shelters, health care systems, city officials and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Shelters have been working to keep people in hotels, since hotels were unaffected by the eviction moratorium, which barred landlords from evicting renters if they could not pay rent due to the pandemic. Groups worked together to find ways to cover hotel costs for families.
Harris says it’s going to take a real community effort to combat homelessness. “We really believe that it will take all of Greenville to really come and wrap around our neighbors to solve this problem,” Harris says.