Get details about the short and long-term vision and learn how you can help
As executive director of the recently renamed Neighbors Together (formerly Tricounty Family Ministries), the Rev. Kara Stewart plans to tackle one of the community’s biggest challenges—ending homelessness. The South Carolina native has experienced what it’s like to struggle on the edge. She’s been there as a child, growing up in poverty a short drive from Furman University, where she eventually earned her degree. “I’ve walked this walk, although I recognize that I have privilege because of my education and my race,” says Stewart. ”I have always been very concerned about the single moms I’ve seen in my communities.”
Founded in 1983 as a soup kitchen, the North Charleston-based Neighbors Together has a long history of assisting people with bills, as well as providing meals and groceries, and has recently expanded its health care services. Since returning to Charleston, where she served as pastor for three different churches, to take the helm of the nonprofit in January 2020, Stewart has witnessed a dramatic increase in the volume of requests for basic needs. ”We thought 2020 was going to be the worst year; we have already surpassed our numbers for 2021,” she says.
In October, Neighbors Together announced its new name and expanded mission to provide additional services to address homelessness. Here, Stewart shares how the nonprofit plans to help restore dignity and hope to families.
Watch a video of the October 4 announcement of Neighbors Together and the nonprofit's expanded mission:
CM: What’s the need that you have identified and want to address?
KS: What we have seen, particularly through the pandemic, is a great need for affordable housing. Families had to start living in their cars. We serve people who tell us they are living in the woods behind Walmart. Folks ask for sleeping bags and new socks every week and are always in line for our meals. We want to be a part of that solution, so we’re joining a great coalition of folks to meet this need for transitional and affordable housing. Our heart is really with the women and children, the single moms, who are working so hard to take care of their families, so they’re going to be our first priority.
CM: How does Neighbors Together plan to expand its services to meet this need short term?
KS: Our first goal is to renovate the building we own on Reynolds Avenue to create eight units for women and children that will include a gathering space where they can receive support and training. They’ll have classroom space where we’ll partner with other organizations to help them get their GED, job training, computer classes, whatever they need to get to the next level.
CM: What’s the long-term vision?
KS: We plan to build a new facility that will include our current services and then expand our educational programs, so more job training. Attached to this one-stop shop will be a residential center that will serve 40 to 50 families and be a first step for women and children who find themselves in immediate need of housing, so getting folks off the street, out of their cars, to a stable room. It’s really important to help people feel like they’re in a home and not in an institution. We want to make sure that families have space to gather, build relationships, and support one another, because that’s the way women work. When a mom’s in trouble, she looks for other moms to help her out.
CM: What are the root problems that lead to the homelessness?
KS: People would be surprised to learn how many folks are struggling on the edge of becoming homeless simply because their wages don’t meet the standard in this town. In this time when we were trying to stay distant and limit contact, we had families moving in with one another, so you would have three sisters, several aunts and uncles all in the same two bedroom apartment. So when one person got COVID, that meant 15 people got COVID.
CM: What funding and other resources are needed to make this a reality?
KS: We are looking for public and private partners to move forward into this project. We recognize it will be a major investment in our community. We have talked with businesses and individual donors who are excited about this plan. So many people have been waiting for this. It has been a recognized need in our area, and folks are excited to partner with us to move forward.
CM: What’s the timeline for the Reynolds Avenue facility?
KS: We do own the building and there are classrooms there now. ...I am super hopeful that in the new year, we will be able to welcome residents. We’re at $1.5 million to renovate that building; just for the building itself. We’re focused on the Reynold’s Avenue project, getting that up and running, and when that is completed, we’ll turn our attention to the next stage, although we are wanting to make sure that we take advantage of any funds that might be available because of the COVID federal relief. It’s certainly an investment in the future of our community.
CM: Have you identified the families?
KS: That’s down the road, but we will have a dedicated social worker who will supervise that program and will be working with the families that we are serving currently to identify which of those families will be a good fit. We definitely want to set people up for success.
CM: How will this be different from other area shelters?
KS: Our facility will be unique in that our residents will sign a 12-month lease so there will be some degree of independence for them, and yet we’ll provide support and services that can help them meet their goals. We do see this as a step up for folks who are perhaps currently in a shelter, perhaps coming out of domestic violence, or whatever situation brought them there, and we would then be the next step before they start to search for their own affordable housing where they can be long-term.
CM: How many families would the new facility serve?
KS: We would love to be able to house 40 or 50 families. We also recognize one of the greatest needs is for families with multiple children, so when we design the next facility, that will be our goal—to have flexibility for multiple children to stay together in family units.
CM: Why do you think you personally were called to this organization at this time?
KS: I grew up in poverty. I grew up with a single mom from the age of 3, and then I later became a single mom when my kiddo was six weeks old. I’ve walked this walk, although I recognize that I have privilege because of my education and my race, and so I have always been very concerned about the single moms I’ve seen in my communities, wherever I’ve lived. To finally be able to devote all of my energy and attention and passion to this work is a dream come true.
How to Help: