What does it mean to be a community leader in Beaufort County, South Carolina?
I consider it an honor to serve my community and believe strongly in Servant Leadership. As such, one of the most rewarding experiences I have in my position as Beaufort County Human Services Director is watching diverse groups of organizational and community representatives come together in a collaborative process. The good that can come from such a process is sometimes unimaginable. Recently we were recognized by the Education Oversight Committee for having improved our school readiness levels. When asked why we were able to achieve such results using methods that are common to other communities, we realized that it was because our efforts weren’t happening in a “silo” – they were being implemented in a community filled with other groups all working collaboratively to “hitch our wagons to the same train and all pull in the same direction.”
Put simply – NEVER! There can never be enough done to support Lowcountry residents who are marginalized or in need. We are living in a county accurately described as “islands of affluence surrounded by a sea of poverty.” We have families in our communities living in homes with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. I have stood on the ground where a homeless man died of exposure on Christmas Eve a few years ago. From where I stood, I could watch families celebrating the holiday in their nearby condominiums. This happened on Hilton Head Island, one of the most successful resort communities on the East Coast. What happens to the least of us, affects us all in one way or another.
Now a few years old, the 2012 Together for Beaufort County report highlighted four quality-of-life indicators (the economy, education, poverty and health) in Beaufort County. What has been the impact of this report and what has since been done to meet these objectives?
The old adage “what gets measured gets done” certainly applies! While collaborative efforts have been in place in our community since the 70s, the process to actually identify, measure, and track quality-of-life indicators began in 2006. This process, and the indicators themselves, became a rallying cry around which many private citizens, agencies, and community action groups coalesced. These became many of our foundational community action teams, known as Together for Beaufort County Coalitions. We have actually shifted the report to an interactive website which can be accessed at www.beaufortcountydata.org. One of the most significant changes is that, in response to years of community and stakeholder feedback, we have refined the focus of our quality-of-life indicators to include five realms of study rather than four.
In 2013, you stated that there were approximately 4,000 to 5,000 homeless people in Beaufort County. Has that number increased or decreased?
Estimates of homeless individuals living in the community are a rapidly-moving target that’s hard to hit. In the case of homeless individuals who are truly homeless (living on the streets, in the woods, or in their cars) we find that the population is transient and highly mobile, and may come or go depending on the weather or other circumstances. When we discuss Beaufort County homeless, our office also includes those who are without a home, but living with friends or family, who may have shelter one week and be on the street or at a hotel the next depending on their personal situations. Those individuals constitute the bulk of our estimate. Lastly, individuals living in substandard housing – that is to say, housing without running water, electricity, or housing with structural issues like holes in the roof or walls – are also considered homeless. However, many housing surveys ask, “Where did you spend the night last night?” to which they inevitably respond, “Home!” This creates a lot of barriers toward developing a comprehensive and exact count. Long story short, however, we believe that the number of 4,000 – 5,000 homeless in Beaufort County remains our best estimate and, presumably, has improved slightly as the economy picks up.
The answer to that question lies in the difference seen between the response of Charleston, South Carolina to trauma and the response seen in Ferguson, Missouri. What came out of Charleston in response to the tragedy was a community-wide conversation about race and forgiveness. Charleston demonstrated an unbreakable sense of community which resulted in that overwhelming message of love and togetherness, the very embodiment of the ‘Beloved Community’ spoken of by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As Co-Chairs, Rev. Jim Wooten and I have been working with Beaufort County Community Relations Council to foster Dr. King’s ‘Beloved Community’ here in our community. We recognize that open and honest dialogue and communication are key components to fighting racism and division. The Council is currently developing a strategic plan for achieving these objectives and fostering a similar sense of community to our Sister City.
Finally, as a community leader, what does the future of Beaufort County look like and how do we get there?
I am very excited about the direction we are moving as a county. Growing participation by local residents coupled with a willingness on the part of Beaufort County Council and other elected officials to take a serious look at difficult social challenges in our community like homelessness, affordable housing and economic development is a powerful combination. Together we have made significant progress already – prenatal care rates now exceed state averages, 98% of our entering Kindergarteners are testing at grade level as they start school, high school graduation rates are improving, and Beaufort County’s Health Ranking is #1 in the state once again in overall quality of life and longevity. Recently the Community Services Committee of County Council requested a Resolution to Address Homelessness in Beaufort County. If these trends continue we are poised to really see some positive growth socially, economically, and environmentally!
Fred Leyda is the Beaufort County Human Services Director in Beaufort, South Carolina. He is also the Co-Chair of the Beaufort County Community Relations Council.
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