A tale of two cities: Life under I-26

This story is one of brokenness, of failed opportunity and of sadness. It is a vast, pertinent story, but one that is largely forgotten, invisible.

This is the story of the homeless.

Every homeless story is different, but recurring themes emerge if you pay attention: broken homes due to domestic violence, broken marriages as a result of alcohol or drug abuse, broken relationships recurring from mental illness, broken futures due to PTSD or chronic unemployment.

These stories reveal to us the invisible underclass of Americans—unsheltered, unemployed or uneducated men, women and children who are homeless.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the homeless are the most difficult group of Americans to count— even most illegal aliens have an address.

However, agencies such as HUD, the national Department of Housing and Urban Development, have made it their mission to conduct annual PIT (Point-In-Time) counts of the homeless population.

HUD works through local social service agencies such as the South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless in order to rationalize the problem in the most condensed terms possible, and to understand just how serious the problem is.

HUD also created the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition, or LHC, covering a seven county-wide area which includes Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.

Tent City is a community of homeless people living in makeshift shelters under the I-26 overpass on Meeting Street. (Photo by Wesley Vance)

Tent City is a community of homeless people living in makeshift shelters under the I-26 overpass on Meeting Street. (Photo by Wesley Vance)

Last year’s PIT count reported a staggering 5,040 homeless men, women and children in South Carolina alone. Of these, 1,806 were living in unsheltered conditions such as cars, tents, abandoned buildings and other areas unsuitable for human habitation.

Tent City is a community of homeless people living in makeshift shelters under the I-26 overpass on Meeting Street. It is located on land owned by the Department of Transportation, and while it is not illegal to be on that land, it is illegal to pitch a tent and stay on the property longer than 48 hours.

The PIT count also discovered that of the homeless population, 1,781 were found in emergency shelters like One80Place.

Search “One80Place” in any engine and you will access the clean, bold website which mirrors the shelter’s main building on Walnut Street, relatively close to Tent City.

I visited One80Place to interview Amy Wilson, the shelter’s Vice President of Development.

Following the twenty-minute walk from campus, I arrived in front of the red-roofed, stylishly modern facility.

After realizing that the entrance was locked, I wandered around the building for a few minutes.

A man wearing an apron, evidently a worker at the facility’s community kitchen, appeared from the back entrance and scanned me in.

Upon entering the building and looking around, I saw a room to the right where a group of homeless men and an employee sat, talking. I noticed the front desk behind which three women stood, busily discussing something. After checking in, I sat on a low wooden bench, observing. I saw the metallic letters on the wall next to a door, “Harold C. Schott Dormitory”, through which several empty bunk beds waited.

A man entered, wearing stained jeans, a gray Hollister hoodie and an old backpack.

He and one of the women at the front desk spoke for a moment in hushed voices, then he came and sat on the bench next to mine. He sat with his head in his hands, looking down at the floor.

One80Place is more than a shelter. Their self-description attests that One80Place is “more than a roof, more than a meal. A place to begin again.”

Their mission: One80Place provides food, shelter and hope to end homelessness and hunger one person at a time, one family at a time.

Shortly after, two more men entered, each wearing sweatpants, plaid shirts and baseball caps. Their faces were worn and weathered. They checked in at the front desk quickly and retreated through a door to the back hallway.

One80Place contains a community kitchen, from which employees and volunteers serve around 185 lunches a day. As the only homeless organization in South Carolina with beds for female veterans, One80Place provides veterans with, among other things, three meals a day and financial support for rental assistance. The shelter also provides a health care clinic, legal services, personalized education and training plans.

A woman entered. She had uncombed hair and wore a black brace on her abdomen. She came in hunched over, as if it pained her to walk. She carried a colorful child’s backpack over one arm and situated herself on one of the benches.

One of the women at the front desk told me I could go upstairs and wait—Amy would be with me in a few minutes.

At the top of the stairs, I noticed a silver frame housing rows of colorful keys. The small plaque inside the display explained the Keys for Hope project, put on by a group of students from Mount Pleasant: “Keys for Hope started from a simple idea—a $5 donation in exchange for a decorative key, symbolizing a better future for homeless men, women, and children—into tens of thousands of dollars that helped build this facility.”

After introducing herself, Amy led me to her office, where she shared that she has been an employee at One80Place for ten years. Amy graduated from the College, where she earned both her undergraduate Sociology degree and her Masters in Public Administration.

She explained that some of her responsibilities as manager of the development staff include focusing on federal grant programs, which One80Place receives through HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and managing media relations, of which Amy says “there’s been a lot of that lately.”

On Feb. 4, Charleston issued an eviction notice with the intention of finding shelter for as many of the city’s homeless as possible.

On March 21, the city of Charleston passed out fliers to the 43 remaining residents of Tent City, detailing the upcoming move-out process which began April 4 and  continued for five days.

If the residents do not have a place to go, the Post and Courier attests, the city will provide housing for up to 60 days at the county’s “warming shelter” in North Charleston, transportation provided.

I asked what she thought about Mayor Tecklenburg’s decision to relocate the homeless to the North Charleston area.

“I mean, I think that, you know, nobody should live outside in an encampment,” she said. “I think we sometimes hear, ‘Oh, well that person says they want to live that way’ or ‘they’re content living that way.’ That happens, maybe, but I think it’s far less frequent than what people think.”

Amy explained that One80Place have met with Mayor Tecklenburg and his team for the past three months, and attests that he is “very committed and dedicated to, you know, making sure people living in that encampment have a place to go.” She added that the Mayor’s decision to relocate the homeless to North Charleston is a temporary transitional housing measure, that it is not meant to be a long-term solution.

Finally, I asked Amy if she agreed with the notion that by donating tents, food, clothing and other items, organizations and charities are adding to the growth of homelessness instead of addressing its root problems.

“Yes, that’s sort of our observation,” she said. “And one thing we noticed as Tent City grew, or as the encampment grew, the more people saw it, there were more people who wanted to help, but by helping they brought things, and more people led to more things, and it was just…ongoing.”

Colin Kerr, the Director of Campus and Young Adult Ministry for the Charleston Atlantic Presbytery, believes that donating to Tent City is a “right-intended compassion without a long term solution, transition, or plan.” Colin put me in touch with Derek Snook, the founder and manager of In Every Story, a labor service agency located on Meeting Street.

Snook grew up in Mount Pleasant with his parents, a minister and kindergarten teacher, and attended Furman University in Greenville to play Division 1 basketball. He told me that he “wanted to adventure and see the world.” And he did. “I worked at a school for orphans in Kenya, and I noticed the disconnect between the people that want to help and people they’re trying to help, and I noticed it was the same where I was from.”

These thoughts followed Snook as he made the decision to live his life as a homeless man.

“It was something I wanted to do,” Snook said about his year at Star Gospel Mission, a transitional housing facility in downtown Charleston. “My challenge was I wanted to live a meaningful life but I didn’t know where to start. I was pretty confident it would be hard having a girlfriend and living at Star Gospel, and many friends and family members were not so happy and ecstatic about it and thought I wasn’t making the most of what was given to me. My friends were going to medical and law school and I felt like a loser living at a homeless shelter. Lots of people told me why I should avoid that challenge.”

I asked Snook if he considered his year living as a homeless man an experiment.

Instead, Snook saw his experiences—living as a homeless man, taking up day labor jobs, living on $8 an hour, riding CARTA—as his purpose.

Throughout our conversation, Snook kept referring to his life, and the lives of the homeless, as a “story.”

“I would call it obedience, or purpose. Yeah, I mean, I would call it purpose and fate, I would say that, you know, each of us has a story, and that our life purpose is to engage in that relationship with the author of that story, and to take that where we think it’s leading us.”

Derek incorporated his belief that everyone has an important, valuable story into  his company at its founding. At IES, Snook  said, “We have a story that we use; it’s based around three points. Every good story has challenges, good reasons to avoid challenges, good authors using challenges to make stories matter. We have that as a way to make people make better professional decisions.”

There are several differences between IES and other temporary staffing agencies that set it apart: at IES, workers are paid weekly, not daily—a plan which Snook says fixes the problem of people blowing all their money in a night. Derek explained that “we invest financially, we invest by keeping the promise in temporary employment. People have a really bad taste in their mouth for staffing agencies, but we encourage customers to hire people, recruit people who want permanent jobs, celebrate that hire. We frame their picture and put it on our wall.”

Unlike the recent Post and Courier article which refers to Charleston’s homeless as “swelling ranks of down-and-out people” and compares Tent City to “the vast, filthy, pathetic tent cities in Buenos Aires, Manila and Mexico City,” Wilson and Snook believe in the homeless.

Tecklenburg announced that Tent City will be cleared by April 9. According to local officials, Tecklenburg, along with homeless advocates, will help the remaining residents of the encampment to find permanent housing.

“He has a good heart,” Snook said of Tecklenberg and his decisions. “He’s a good man. We’re helping employ some of those folks from Tent City, three or four of them, because of his efforts.”

The homeless story is one of brokenness, failed opportunity and sadness, but people like Wilson and Snook, who believe in and hope for this invisible class of broken Americans, provide hope.

At the end of the interview, Snook left me with a single thought: “Each of us gets to decide what our ideals are. Our actions are what will show the world what our ideals actually are.”

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Emily Warner is a freshman English major with a minor in Communication. Born and raised in Greenwood, South Carolina, Emily loves having the opportunity to call Charleston her new home and is excited to see where this part of her journey will take her. Emily is an active member of the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta, where she has made lifelong friends and has enjoyed participating in several philanthropic opportunities and countless fun experiences. Emily loves to go on adventures here in Charleston, exploring this beautiful city and making the most out of what it has to offer. She also loves traveling, and hopes to study abroad in the near future. A lover of all things English and literature, Emily’s dream is to become a journalist or writer, where she can immerse herself in doing what she loves.

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