From our News Partners at WCBD-TV:
Officials say that when it comes to homelessness, South Carolina is pacing at an alarming rate.
According to the South Carolina Coalition of the Homeless, the homeless population in Greenville County is 896. Closer to home, in Horry County, there are a total of 839. Here in the Lowcountry, there is a total of 403 homeless people living in Charleston County. But, these numbers do not take into account those who are not in the system.
Very few people know about a secret, hidden community of homeless people in the Holy City. They live in the woods, in tents, as they struggle to survive day-to-day.
State Representative Wendell Gilliard has sponsored bills in the current legislative session to help the homeless. He gave News 2 reporter Larry Collins an opportunity to visit one of these tent cities. For the first time, they can give us a glimpse into the hidden and humbling life inside a Charleston "shanty town."
On a cold night, we ventured deep into a wooded area near Downtown Charleston.
"I only bring you good tidings," Gilliard yelled into the dark woods to announce our arrival.
"There are about 50 people out here," Gilliard explained.
To put this into a bit of perspective, this community of hidden homeless are less than half a mile from a popular restaurant that has been celebrated on national television. We will not disclose the location to protect those who live there. Many fear they will be arrested or removed.
"When you look at the women and you look at the veterans, you look at the children. This is America," Gilliard said as we walked.
"I've met teachers. I've met lawyers. I've met people who used to be entrepreneurs out here," he added.
He invited us to listen to the voices of the homeless who huddle for warmth and pray for peace of mind.
"I'm out in the woods. I've been out here for 3 years," A woman named Kim explained.
"I've been homeless for 10 years on and off. I've been out in the woods for two years," a man named Sam said.
When we asked Kim about the hardest part of living in the woods, she paused and answered, "the lack of self esteem. The lack of being clean and being feminine."
They all have a story. Kim moved to Charleston after her husband died of cancer.
"I thought that I would just come here to start over and see if I could find where I belong," she said.
Instead she found herself living in a an old tent.
Sam arrived in the United States about 25 years ago.
When we asked Sam about the difficulty of living in the woods, he said, "Oh my God, it's difficult. Look at how cold it is."
"Look at me. I'm out here in the windy, cold night in the woods. I came here to have a better life. This is not what I had planned," he said.
These are common tales in this community; usually told by the light of a fire.
"We eat off of the fire. We build a fire to eat, make coffee water and stay warm by it," Kim said.
"It's pretty barbaric and primitive living. We have to...," she paused deciding not to finish the statement. "It's pretty primitive."
You can see the reminders of their former lives all around. For one dwelling, books are stacked neatly next to a makeshift table. They have made an oven to cook the food that they can find. But for now, this is home.
There are tents and walls made of tarp in these plastic homes which are not far from the lap of Lowcountry luxury. These personal castles are made of what we discard and waste.
"We're out of sight. We're out of mind," Kim said.
"Because nobody seems to care," Sam added.
Each evening as night falls, so does hope for some.
"I want to go waitress. I'm good. I was in college. I carried a 3.5 GPA and I come out here and my fingernails are messed up and my fingers are dirty from carrying wood and it's hard for me to know where to start," Kim said.
But they sill count blessings that many would take for granted.
When we asked Kim where she hoped to see herself a year from now, she said, "I hoped to see myself inside 2 years ago. I've been out here for three years. I'm beating the odds. I'm lucky to be alive. God bless us for another warm night."
Image courtesy of WCBD-TV.