Armrests sparks a conversation about homelessness

VIDEO: Armrests sparks a conversation about homelessness

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - It was a seemingly innocent update to the fountain at Marion Square.

Armrests were added to the stone benches carved out of the base of the pool some time during the last few weeks.

A statement from the city says they are part of a concerted effort to make the area more aesthetically pleasing.

“The new armrests are part of a small decorative improvement project around the fountain, including the installation of several bronze statues of animals native to our part of the Lowcountry,” the statement read.

However, Aaron Comstock believes the armrests were put there to stop homeless people from sleeping on those benches. Comstock is a member of Uplift Charleston, a community organization focused on helping the homeless.

“It was a place for them to cool down, and those were put up to prevent them from laying down,” Comstock said. “I do feel it is a conscience effort to drive people out of that area.”

It is not uncommon to see a dozen or so homeless people sleeping on benches, cooling off in the shade or milling about Marion Square. Comstock said he spoke with a homeless veteran in the area after he saw the armrests.

“She was also pregnant, and she said that she would use that area to lay down. She said it was nice because it was cool,” Comstock said. “She said it was really insulting to her. It was really degrading.”

City officials say they take homelessness seriously and disregard the armrests as anything more than just that.

“Homelessness is certainly linked to the provision of housing,” said Geona Shaw Johnson, director of Charleston Housing and Community Development. “Providing affordable and attainable housing for people at various income levels is a top three priority of the City of Charleston.”

Shaw Johnson said there are resources available to people in that area. She says there is no need for anyone to be sleeping out there at all.

“The City of Charleston is providing hotel stays for people who are transitioning from homelessness into housing. We have assisted about 31 families,” Shaw Johnson said.

In addition to hotel stays, Shaw Johnson says there is a facility just up the road on Meeting Street where people experiencing homelessness can find help.

“Approximately two or three years ago, we helped to create what is referred to as the Navigation Center,” Shaw Johnson said. “For those who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, that center provides help.”

However, the Navigation Center is not exactly a beacon of hope at first glance.

The rundown building is situated between two abandoned structures covered in graffiti with boarded up entrances. You would not know it was a facility designed to help the homeless unless you could read the vinyl sign stretched across the front of the building.

It is around the back that you will find a group of people looking for help.

On Thursday, paper bag lunches were being distributed. People sat on ground littered with small mountains of plastic bottles, wet clothes and used food containers.

But looks can be deceiving.

The Navigation Center partners with more than 30 non-profits to connect people with the help they need to prevent or move out of homelessness. Those partnerships include groups like MUSC, Goodwill, DAR and SC Department of Mental Health.

“The message is there are resources and opportunities available,” Shaw Johnson said.

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