It’s been five years since officials with Greenville County shut down a makeshift encampment of homeless people under the Pete Hollis Bridge in 2014 called Tent City.
At its peak, the stopgap neighborhood consisted of about 100 homeless residents — people who showed up and pitched their meager belongings beneath the overpass, some of whom had been there for years. But the growing number of drifters soon became a problem that could no longer be ignored. Overcrowded, the community started experiencing more violent incidents. By September 2014, the county forced the camp to disperse.
“As it grew, it became violent, and the violence was really mostly on the fault of people like us, who were well-intended citizens wanting to help but not in a coordinated fashion,” said Susan McLarty, coordinator of the Greenville Homeless Alliance.
Tent City was the impetus for the Greenville Homeless Alliance, an organization formed through public-private partnerships whose goal is to make homelessness “brief and rare” in Greenville, along with a report on homelessness called the White Paper. McLarty was named the first coordinator of the organization last year.
In a presentation to the city and county councils, McLarty said Greenville is home to nearly 50% of the homeless population in the 13 Upstate counties that participate in the Upstate Continuum of Care — a group of organizations fighting homelessness in the Upstate.
McLarty said one issue is the long-term use of emergency shelters.
“Emergency shelters have now become transitional housing, and so there is simply no room in our inn to catch people who are homeless,” McLarty said.
In the five years since Tent City, a shortage of affordable homes has continued to grow by about 500 each year. McLarty said the city and county are expected to have a deficit of about 14,670 affordable homes by 2023.
While city and county funding for affordable housing has increased, median income in the county has also increased by about $13,700 since Tent City. An increasing median income doesn’t mean income has increased for the lowest-earning workers, which creates a bigger gap between higher-earning workers and those living in poverty.
“A rising AMI means that higher-paying jobs have been added — but the challenge is that minimum wage has not changed, so people working in lower-paying jobs have had stagnant wages — so then the overall number of people who qualify for a housing subsidy has increased,” McLarty said.
The 2018 Homeless Point in Time Count tracks the number of homeless people in the county on a given day in January. For 2018, Greenville had 572 homeless. The number does not include many homeless people who are doubled up or living in motels.
In the 2017-18 school year, the county had 1,084 students experiencing homelessness as calculated by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Greenville High School and Blythe Academy had the highest number of homeless students. The McKinney-Vento number doesn’t include students with homes in deplorable conditions.
“Augusta Circle had one child who was homeless last school year, but the new principal that came in said she was appalled at the conditions of some of the homes when she went to do family visits,” McLarty said. “We know that there are still many, many homes that are just not safe but may be affordable for families.”
A person making minimum wage earns $7.25 per hour, or $15,080 per year, but the 2018 Greenville County Affordable Housing Report shows an individual needs to earn at least $13.62 hourly, or $28,332 annually, to be able to afford rent in the county — a number that’s higher in the city of Greenville.
McLarty said that outside of raising the minimum wage, some solutions would be to create housing that starts at $200 per month, ensure public transportation is connected to affordable housing, and have the city and county coordinate infrastructure for affordable housing.