Columbia’s rapid shelter homes 40% occupied after two weeks

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Published: Nov. 14, 2022 at 7:30 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Columbia’s rapid shelter is two weeks old and already housing the chronically unhoused.

Columbia Director of Homeless Services Kameisha Heppard confirmed to WIS on Monday a total of 20 out of the 50 rapid shelter homes are occupied, representing 40 percent occupancy.

The homes are small single rooms located on Calhoun Street next to the building formerly referred to as the Inclement Weather Center. The shelters feature a bed, air-conditioning, heat, and a fire extinguisher.

The former Inclement Weather Center is now referred to as Rapid Shelter Columbia Overflow but provides the same weather-based services. Transitions runs that overflow building.

The rapid shelter homes operate on a referral system where factors such as a history of homelessness, mental health, substance abuse, and gender (40 homes for men, 10 for women) are considered. Social services to assist the residents are also provided. The stated goal is to assist the residents for 90 days with their challenges before transitioning them out of the rapid shelters.

The referrals are handled by partner agencies such as Transitions, Mirci, Prisma Health, and others.

Heppard was not available for a formal interview on Monday but told WIS the first two weeks had gone well.

Transitions CEO Craig Currey said his outreach team and others work with Heppard to get people who haven’t sought help before.

“Find people who don’t want to go to any shelter and then we work with them on why. Maybe that individual unit might be enough, there’s more privacy,” he said.

Currey said the largest hurdle has been getting the residents to agree.

“They have to want to go. So we’re not, an outreach worker is not in a position to say you ‘oh you go down there,’ it doesn’t work that way. They’re asked to go, and you can try to convince them and you may have to do this multiple times too,” he said.

He said the outreach community is aware of different residents who may be good for the program, and they attempt to leverage that knowledge.

Currey said the overflow shelter saw 46 people Sunday night due to the cold weather. He said his team uses the weather nights as an opportunity to promote the rapid shelters.

“They’re analyzing every person right now, and trying to figure we get Fred in there, can we get Susan in there, and will they go?”

Columbia City At-Large Councilwoman Aditi Bussells helped spearhead the implementation of the rapid shelter program.

The city council allocated $2.6 million in funds for the project in September.

Bussells said she was not surprised by the 40 percent occupancy figure. The city has publicly estimated there are 250 unhoused people within the city.

“I’m somebody who really pushed for us to do this quickly and do it well. To be able to put something together in 70 days, making sure that Kameisha and her team are very thoughtful about a triage to really develop a hub or area where providers can come and triage folks out. I’m pleased to hear that we’re getting people into the pallet shelters,” she said.

She said she expects the colder weather will lead to the rapid shelter coming to capacity.

Bussells said constituents have reached out to her about referrals and volunteering. She said a “lesson learned” was being adaptable to the rapid shelter intake process.

“I do appreciate that we now have a frequently asked questions document available on the city website, that allows folks to get an idea of how can I even refer someone to these services,” she said.

What is the criteria/criterion for individuals to be selected for the shelters? Is there an application process? Individuals are chosen for the Pallet shelters on a referral basis ONLY. Rapid Shelter Columbia has partnered with provider agencies who have an outreach staff that is already engaged with the identified population.

Bussells reiterated the goal of the project, getting unhoused people off the streets.

“One of the things that was really important to us is that we gave folks options and now there are options. You can go into the pallet shelter you can go into the inclement weather center, now known as rapid housing. You can go into any of these other programs that you might be eligible for, but living on the street is not an option right?

So we do expect to see a visible reduction of people living on the street, and we do also expect folks will take advantage of the resources brought to them,” she said.

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