A family that was once homeless found help, support and services through Family Promise. They have since moved into a new home. COURTESY FAMILY PROMISE OF BEAUFORT COUNTY

As 2020 heads to 2021, one grave situation in Beaufort County and across the country will be realized as residents impacted by the pandemic face their greatest challenges: eviction and homelessness.

“I think a lot of people are struggling but it’s all happening behind the scenes. They’re struggling at home, in their car, at a hotel,” said Ben Boswell, administrative manager of the Beaufort County Human Services Department. “I think we will be seeing an increase in homelessness at the beginning of the year. I know that none of our agencies have seen an upsurge, but they have seen an increase in people asking for food.”

Boswell said that local data in 2019 indicated there were 68 homeless or transient households, consisting of 126 individuals countywide. Add to that number those who were “housing insecure” – about to become homeless or were living with friends or family – and the number jumped to 371 households or 939 people.

Out of those 939 individuals, 291 were children (infants to age 17) and 114 were seniors (age 60 and older).

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a person is considered homeless only when he or she resides in one of the places described as follows at the time of the count: An unsheltered homeless person resides in a place not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks or abandoned buildings. A sheltered homeless person resides in an emergency shelter or in transitional housing or supportive housing for homeless persons who originally came from the streets or emergency shelters.

“Ultimately, the issue of homeless is extraordinarily complex, as the underlying issues for each individual can vary wildly. A person may end up homeless as a result of an infinite variety of reasons,” said Fred Leyda, human services director for Beaufort County. “Someone who lost their home as a result of a disrupted economy will address the situation from a completely different angle than someone who is homeless as a result of underlying health issues, mental illness or addiction.”

One local agency that sees the homeless situation firsthand is Family Promise of Beaufort County, a local chapter of a national nonprofit that seeks to assist by providing temporary shelter, social service resources and training with a goal of future independence.

Until March, families accepted into the program were housed and fed in local church halls. Once those facilities were closed to every outreach program, the challenge increased.

The families participating were then moved into a local hotel, which meant an increased financial burden to the charity, which had to pay for housing as well as other costs.

Six families were in the program this summer, said Executive Director Lynda Halpern. Now there is only one, which is puzzling.

“It is always a very fluid situation. Two families have recently moved into their own apartments and this family of five just joined us,” Halpern said. “We continue to receive calls for assistance, but not at a rate which would be normal for this time of year or as a result of the pandemic. We are stymied as to why we aren’t receiving more, though.”

Halpern said there are numerous causes for most homeless situations: Families wearing out their welcome when staying with family or friends; inconsistent employment history; letting others stay in their apartment who are not on the lease and getting evicted; not managing finances, therefore not paying rent and getting evicted.

“Most are a result of generational poverty,” said Halpern. “Moving from one place to another and job-hopping is what they grew up with.” 

Solving the homeless or housing insecurity problem is difficult.

“It’s a combination of things and not just one. People make bad choices, do bad things, and they are reaping what they sow. Clearly there are times when that happened, but not to everyone,” said Leyda. “(Some) people do all the right things, and it still happens. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. It’s not always simple.”

The rent payment moratorium ends Dec. 31, and with it will go the grace period for those out of work whose financial situation has stretched until it snapped.

“People haven’t hit that rock-bottom yet, but the average person doesn’t want to ask for help,” Boswell said. “We’re all bracing for the eviction notices. Lowcountry Legal Volunteers has done a lot of work around renters’ rights.”

LCLV provides legal services to those who otherwise could not afford to have their concerns resolved, according to the group’s web site.

“Last year we assisted over 300 individuals and closed close to 200 cases,” said Anne Caywood, executive attorney with the organization. “Our volume decreased for the months when the courts were closed, and now has steadily increased with our expectation that our volume will be remarkably higher at the beginning of 2021.”

Although rental agencies and landlords can’t currently pursue eviction based upon violations of the tenants’ lease, Caywood said that when the moratorium ends, they anticipate “a lot of calls from people at risk of eviction or that have been served with eviction papers and have upcoming hearings.”

“LCLV has implemented a Housing Protection Program to help those at risk of being evicted. Several local attorneys have agreed to take these cases pro bono (for free) as people in need contact LCLV,” said Caywood. “LCLV will focus its efforts on helping those at risk negotiate the best outcome possible, based on the circumstances, with their landlord.”

Halpern, too, expects Family Promise will be flooded with calls once the eviction moratorium is lifted at the end of the year.

“We have been paying for lodging for the families in a local extended-stay hotel and providing gift cards for the families to purchase food to prepare meals in the fully-equipped kitchenette in their rooms,” Halpern said. “We had to start using the hotel on March 18 and anticipate having to continue doing so well into 2021, if not the entire year. We now need Food Lion and Walmart gift cards, and donations more than ever.”

Several families are awaiting the results of free COVID-19 tests that will push the acceptance process forward.

Family Promise has helped more than 560 families since its beginning in 2008 and, after one year following the program, 80 percent of them are maintaining a stable lifestyle. Some, however, will not take the first step, said Halpern.

“It has been interesting how many are not willing to take the (COVID-19) test even though it is free, and we explain where they should go that would be most convenient for them. It is disappointing that a parent would let taking this simple test stand between sleeping in their car and receiving a multitude of services and support,” Halpern said. 

When and how people seek help varies from person to person, situation to situation.

“Whereas one individual may benefit from vocational rehabilitation, re-education, and budgeting classes, another may require help with qualifying for social security disability benefits and identifying permanent supportive housing to help them with ongoing health concerns,” Leyda said. “As a result, the solution to homelessness involves engaging an entire community, including elected officials, business leaders, faith leaders, philanthropists and funders, the human services and healthcare industries, law enforcement, educational institutions including adult education, local governments, and many more.

“That said,” he added, “Beaufort County is blessed to have a very strong human service network that works tirelessly to ensure that the needs of each vulnerable resident that seeks assistance, and a population that is incredibly generous and compassionate.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.