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Of all the superlative labels attached to Charleston—“most polite city,” “best place to live,” “top spot to visit”—the least talked about may be the only one that really matters: “most homeless.” A study conducted for the Conference of Mayors revealed that between 2010 and 2011, of 29 U.S. cities surveyed, Charleston had the greatest percentage increase of families experiencing homelessness—150 percent. The following school year (2011-2012), Charleston County School District documented 700 homeless children in its classrooms. Here, we move beyond the statistics by meeting two local families whose road to the American Dream took an unexpected detour through homelessness.
Just before 4 p.m. every weekday, when the school bus drops off 11-year-old Jenika Ford at her stop along Savannah Highway, the sixth grader slings a heavy book bag over one shoulder, then walks slowly towards the home she pretends is hers, an apartment complex that sits back just a little from the road. Only her best friend knows the truth: As soon as the bus pulls away and Jenika is out of the view of the other kids, she will take a sharp left turn and head to the motel where she actually resides, in a single room that she shares with her mother and father. “It’s embarrassing,” Jenika says. “I’m worried that people will think I’m a bum. I don’t want to get picked on.”
But the young girl’s fears extend far beyond potential bullies. One night a few months ago, the family heard a commotion in the parking lot, looked out their window, and later learned there had been a stabbing. And among the motley array of transient residents who have become her neighbors was a middle-aged, registered pedophile who cornered her and made a lewd comment. Jenika sums it up matter-of-factly, “I just don’t like living here.”
Her father, Stephen Ford, nods in agreement. The sudden crease in his forehead reveals an inevitable sadness. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that we have a roof over our heads,” he says. “But she’s imprisoned here. I want her to live someplace she can play with her friends.”
That dream, says Stephen, is what he thinks about every morning when the alarm clock rings at 4 a.m., getting him up and on his way down the street to Chick-fil-A, where he earns $9 an hour working in the kitchen. Once a week, when the supply truck needs unloading, it’s a 3 a.m. wake-up call. He used to travel the half-mile distance to the restaurant by foot, until one of his managers, Bary Walker, spotted him walking home in the rain, gave him a ride to the motel, then decided to buy Stephen a bicycle. “He calls it his ‘Cadillac,’” says Walker, who describes Stephen’s work ethic as exemplary. “It’s not always an easy day, but he doesn’t complain. If someone calls in sick or we find ourselves short-staffed, he picks up the slack.”
The seriousness with which Stephen approaches each work day stems from his appreciation for the job that enabled his family to get out of the shelter at Crisis Ministries, where they lived for a year. Stephen calls that time his lowest point as a man. “I would try to keep my head up,” he remembers, “but deep down inside I was breaking in pieces.”
Today, more than half of his monthly income goes to paying for the motel room. That’s where his wife, Michelle, is usually found, often conjuring up family dinners—cheeseburger pot pie; toaster-baked, Mexican-style meatloaf; or spaghetti sauce from deer meat a friend brought over—in the shabby galley kitchen that belies her culinary-school aspirations. “I hope no one will judge my wife for not having a job right now,” says Stephen, “but we made this decision together because it’s just not safe to leave our daughter alone here.”
Under federal law, the definition of a homeless child is “a youth who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” including children who live in cars, abandoned buildings, parks and other public places, homeless shelters, transitional foster homes, camp grounds, substandard housing, motels, or overcrowded accommodations, where they may double up with extended family or friends.
“2011 was a bad year for families,” confirms Amy Zeigler, director of grants and community outreach at Crisis Ministries, where the number of families seeking housing at the downtown shelter nearly doubled in one year’s time. This year’s statistics show a marked improvement, with far fewer newly homeless families. Zeigler believes that the prior increase was largely due to a domino effect from the recession. “People who were foreclosed on were pushed into the rental market,” she explains. “The majority of people we serve have never had the resources to own a home. I look at it like a tiered system where the tier above is pushing out the tier below; so those families that were barely hanging on got displaced.”
The waiting list for those seeking affordable housing from the City of Charleston includes more than 500 families, says Selina Brown, director of Housing Opportunities. Having been unable, so far, to qualify for a privately owned apartment, the Fords remain hopeful but realistic about their chances of someday, somehow getting out. “Our hard times are just like a lot of people are going through right now,” says Stephen. “We are an American family doing the best with what we have.”
“We are frequently asked for assistance with housing,” says Sonya Jones, the homeless education liaison for Charleston County School District, whose office is responsible for identifying homeless youth in Charleston County, ensuring the children are enrolled in and attending school, and linking the students with the educational and health services they may require. “In this community, we need additional places for families who are living out on the street with nowhere to go. Right now we don’t have that. We have a couple of shelters, but they’re always full.”
Jones explains that the program has neither the directive, nor the funding, to find her young charges a place to live; nonetheless, like her colleagues, she spends a good deal of time making phone calls toward that end. All too often, she says, those efforts lead to no outcome, and many a sleepless night. “I understand the personal challenges that many families go through,” says the Charleston native, who grew up underprivileged and attended school in the very system in which she’s worked for many years.of time making phone calls toward that end. All too often, she says, those efforts lead to no outcome, and many a sleepless night. “I understand the personal challenges that many families go through,” says the Charleston native, who grew up underprivileged and attended school in the very system in which she’s worked for many years.
The shame felt by individuals who have ended up without shelter, says Jones, is one of the most difficult aspects of her job. She and her team are required to identify minors in homeless situations, yet they come across families, again and again, who have been keeping their shelterless status a secret.
“I received a call this morning from a mother whose child was denied school enrollment because she had not registered an address,” says Jones. “This is typical: The mother had lost her job, was evicted two weeks ago, and had just started working at McDonald’s. She was living with a friend, and when I asked her if she had informed the school, she said, ‘I didn’t want them to know I am homeless.’
“What many of these parents don’t understand is that if the school is made aware that a child is homeless, then I am contacted and the child is immediately enrolled,” continues Jones. “These families are operating on fear—that their children won’t be enrolled without a permanent address or, even worse, that their children will be taken away from them.”
On the Home Front
Lindsey Harris understands those fears well. “I would avoid telling anyone I was homeless,” says the single mom, who served four years as a private first class in the Army before circumstances landed her at Crisis Ministries with her 10-year-old son, Guy, last spring. “When you tell someone you are in a shelter, they think you aren’t clean—that you’re dirty. Their attitude changes toward you, especially when it comes to getting a job. They assume that you aren’t someone they can rely on. For somebody who works hard like I do, that’s not the greatest feeling in the world.”
Veterans, such as Harris, are a group that has seen an enormous rise in homelessness across the nation, but particularly in the Charleston area. “South Carolina has a high population of veterans, and the highest number of vets are at the coast,” explains Zeigler. “The hospital [Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center] has a good reputation. Plus, many vets were stationed here at one time and remember it as a nice place to live.”
Nice—if you can afford it. According to the Lowcountry Housing Trust, a Charleston resident must earn $16.60 per hour—more than twice the minimum wage—to afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Housing Affordability Assessment reveals that one-third of the local population pays more than 50 percent of their income to keep a roof above their heads.
Zeigler says one of the most hidden realities, around the country and in our community, is the rise of female, homeless vets, like Harris. As a result of the economy’s decline, the number of homeless women in general has seen a sharp increase, but the scope of the problem, she explains, is rarely exposed to the public. “You’re more likely to see a man living on the street than a woman and child because, frankly, more people are willing to take in women and children than men.”
Charleston’s reputation for being hospitable, it seems, is not just talk. We open our homes to friends and family. Our region has the second highest number of severely overcrowded households in the state. Anna Hamilton, a local social worker who chairs the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition and has conducted multicounty homelessness surveys for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), says she was stunned a couple of years ago, when a service-provider in a highly impoverished area of the state told her that they send homeless people to the Holy City. “He told me point blank, ‘We don’t have any homeless services here, so we just stick ’em on a bus to Charleston.’”
As for the Ford family, they were struggling with unemployment in Georgia when somebody told them that there was lots of work to be found in Charleston. The myth of plentiful jobs, says Zeigler, is one she hears from a lot of the shelter’s residents. “The reality is, as a tourism-based economy, the majority of open positions are seasonal with low pay and no benefits.”
For her part, Lindsey Harris had secured a steady job at a warehouse in North Charleston and was happy to be doing the kind of labor in which, thanks to her years in the armed forces, she has experience. But when her car broke down, and the cost of repairs was high, Lindsey found herself with no transportation to work. “At first, friends offered to give me a ride,” she says. “But that’s a big commitment, day after day. Eventually they didn’t show. I lost my job.”
No rent money soon meant no place to live, which is how she and Guy ended up at Crisis Ministries. They were the first family housed at the new section designated for female veterans. A well-behaved, all-A’s student at Sanders Clyde Elementary (with an exemplary PASS score in every subject), Guy took the move in stride, decking out his top-bunk (above Mom) shelf with comic books and adventure novels. There were things to like at the shelter, such as the art class he got to take there. But he hated living there nonetheless. The 8:30 p.m. lights-out, in-bed rule was in effect, even through summer. He was never allowed to be away from his mother, not even in the next room watching cartoons. Worst of all, one day, soon after a group of new families arrived, Guy’s hand-held gaming device—one of his only toys and most-prized possession—disappeared from his bunk.
“It was hard,” says Lindsey, of living with her son and 10 strangers in one sparse, concrete room. “There were a lot of different personalities that sometimes didn’t mesh well. And it was frustrating because Guy is self-sufficient but he couldn’t act on that. To me, at 10 years old, he should be able to go to the bathroom or go get something to eat in the kitchen without being monitored, but the rules didn’t allow it.”
After a five-month stay at the shelter, during which Lindsey received Goodwill training, she was able to get a job in packing and distribution that got them out. A two-bedroom apartment and donations of furniture from friends has enabled her to create a home. Their apartment is walking distance to school and to the bus stop, where mother and son often catch a ride to their favorite used bookstore. Now that he can stay up late reading if he wants to, Guy likes to trade his old books for new ones as often as possible.
The Ford family recently got on a bus together, as well, though they had no particular destination in mind. “We just rode around to see Charleston, and dream,” says Stephen. “Just envisioning where we could live.”
How You Can Help Homeless Families
Crisis Ministries, the largest homeless service provider in the state, supplies meals, emergency housing for individuals and families, case management, and primary health care, as well as legal, employment, and veteran services. Since its founding in 1984, Crisis Ministries has served more than 1,800,000 meals, sheltered more than 37,500 people, and helped more than 6,250 homeless men and women become self-sufficient. Support its efforts by making a donation of money, canned goods, and/or supplies or volunteering in the Soup Kitchen or Family Center.
On April 18, 2013, Crisis Ministries will host Christopher Gardner, the inspiration behind the best-selling book and film, The Pursuit of Happyness, at the Riviera at Charleston Place. Gardner will share his inspiring real-life experience going from a homeless, single father living in San Francisco to the owner and CEO of Gardner Rich, an institutional securities brokerage firm. A reception will follow.
For information on how to donate cash or supplies or to purchase tickets for the event, visit www.CharlestonHomeless.org or call (843) 723-9477.
Children in Crisis Fund:
In 2008, the Charleston County School District established the Superintendent’s Children in Crisis Fund to support children and families in critical situations. Its funds—primarily from private donations—are used for many types of emergencies, including paying for families who’ve been evicted from their homes to spend a night or two in a motel. For more information or to donate, call (843) 937-6578