GREENVILLE COUNTY, SC (WSPA) – Leaders with the Greenville Homeless Alliance said they have noticed an increase in mental health issues in those experiencing homelessness.

Staff of organizations that serve them identified it as one of the top negative impacts of COVID-19.

“We met about a COVID-19 brief that was released as an addendum to our most recently released report on homelessness,” said Susan McLarty, coordinator for the Greenville Homeless Alliance. “And we took the month of June and talked with over 100 people. Different sectors we saw in the community, from healthcare to frontline service providers, to the business community, to government, and people experiencing homelessness. And we asked, you know, ‘What do you feel like was the most negative impact of COVID?'”

“So, it gave us the opportunity to speak with a lot of people and then look at that and then say, ‘what did we hear as the most critical things facing this community,’ and one thing that we wanted to make sure that people learned today, was that increase in the need for mental health services for people experiencing homelessness and for the staff serving them, was number one,” McLarty said.

Leaders also said isolation, separation from support systems, and increased stress were all cited as contributing factors.

In addition, the need for available and affordable housing was also another key concern that impacted the homeless population, but also the staff of organizations that serve them.

“Number two was—as we’ve tried to highlight–there are so few options for housing that’s safe and affordable to help get people out of that experience of homelessness,” said McLarty.

“We just have to, as a community, continue to figure out every way possible to build back housing we’re losing,” McLarty said.

“We’ve heard even from landlords that they had to let go of properties because they weren’t able to keep them afloat when we were in that period of eviction moratorium,” explained McLarty. “We heard rising rents from realtors who’ve said rents have risen 23 percent.”

“Then we’ve talked about income,” she said. “Because we became a ‘zoom town’ and a lot of people have moved here with higher incomes and there’s this pressure.”

According to a 2021 report, Greenville County ranks third in the state in the number of people experiencing homelessness.

Advocates believe there could be thousands of people unsheltered on any given night in the county. They said homelessness is something that must be addressed by the entire community.

In a 12-month period, McLarty said at least 3,200 men, women, and children experienced homelessness in the county.

“We saw increases in schoolchildren experiencing homelessness and those are Greenville County students,” said McLarty. “We actually saw a decline in those served by our emergency shelters – many because the pandemic kind of caused people to need to shelter in place.”

Tina Harris, with the non-profit Favor Upstate, said she knows what it’s like to be homeless.

“And by God’s grace, I’ve been able to get my life back together and come back and try to help people who went through the same situations that I’ve gone through,” Harris said.

Harris agreed more help is needed.

“A place to live, food, and healthcare are things that we have a right to as Americans,” Harris said.

The Alliance is working with other organizations and leaders. Now, they are also inviting more people to join the battle against homelessness.

“We’ve been working towards offering what we’ve called an Advocacy Training Academy,” McLarty said. “Training more people to advocate for their neighborhood, and what they want to see happen in their own community.”

She said an Advocacy Training Academy is coming up in August with the Sterling Neighborhood Association.

“Then, for broad things like improving Greenlink or addressing this big issue of housing that’s across the county, we issue what we call ‘call to action alerts,'” said McLarty. “So, just getting people plugged in.”

McLarty said they have also discussed hosting a justice forum to involve faith communities in the county.

“We’ve identified 700 places of worship, who are in close proximity to the 86 different schools who reported one or more student experiencing homelessness,” McLarty said. “Thanks to Community Works, we’ll offer churches or any kind of places of worship who has land and wants to think about utilizing that to build housing or support their church through creative development.”

She said there will be a development session in October.

The organization said stakeholders identified the following key areas for increased advocacy and collaboration:

  • Reduce barriers to housing – like eviction.
  • Create opportunities for previously incarcerated residents to increase support for workforce development, fair chance hiring, and housing solutions.
  • Expand affordable childcare options to make daycare accessible for families who experience homelessness.
  • Support transit. Full funding of Greenlink’s Transit Development Plan through 2023 will expand transit to meet the needs of residents.

Click here to read the 2021 homelessness report

Click here to read about the impact of COVID-19 on homelessness in Greenville County

To get involved, you can call the Greenville Homeless Alliance at (864) 568-5791.