New Environments, New Tools
They are everywhere. Standing on the corners of streets. Lying on park benches. Sitting on the stoops of steps. Having a homeless community is not strange to urban cities—overpopulation in areas with skyrocketing housing prices can leave hundreds of people without a roof over their heads. Charleston is not immune to this.
However, homelessness is more than just a label used to compartmentalize a group of individuals without a home. It is a dynamic, fluctuating category of people who are experiencing homelessness. It is not always static, although for some it can be a chronic situation and a vicious cycle. Conceptions held in today’s society about what homelessness means looks much different than the actual picture.
There is more to the stories of the homeless than the fact that they do not have a roof over their heads.
How often do you walk by someone who is homeless? Is it a familiar occurrence? Do you ever wonder where they go on rainy or cold nights, or why they are not there the next day in their usual place, if they have one? People can have an impact on each other without either one ever even knowing. Imagine the changes if both recognized the existence of the other and attempted to better each other based on that influence. Homelessness affects everyone in society, even those who do not see it.
Fixing homelessness is a lofty goal but one that is achievable nonetheless. Strategies to end this cycle must include changing an environment for someone who may have grown up in toxic areas, around negative influences. Domestic abuse, drugs, alcohol and other factors can add to the constant barrage inhibiting people from fixing their state of life.
Charleston’s local homeless shelter, One80 Place, has shown immense passion to help those in need, implementing a wide array of programs. They seek to be a neutral zone—a safe harbor for the local homeless community. In reference to overcoming toxic influences, Brad Cashman, One80’s director of community engagement, explained that society itself can be a very hard influence to overcome. “It can become almost like a wave hitting you and then before you have time to catch a breath, you have another wave hitting you.” That is not to say it is impossible; overcoming homelessness is a common occurrence at One80, where “a lot of people [make] that transition” not just physically but mentally. “It does occur,” Cashman reiterated. This is not impossible.
Another solution, and perhaps the most pivotal, is ensuring an adequate supply of affordable housing. Students struggle every year to find affordable rental homes, but most of us are fortunate enough to have a safety net made up of parents, friends and financial assistance from the College.
Many in Charleston are not so lucky, and end up living on the streets.
Women and children are a key focus for homeless shelters right now. Imagine doing the same rental search with little to no income. No job. Maybe no other resources, like family or friends, who can help you anymore. Maybe you have a child to support or an ill relative who cannot work. Every story is different and we must avoid making generalizations about those experiencing homelessness. The first step to understanding this problem and helping those who fall victim to it is to listen to those stories.
At One80 Place, people “are not using the same set of tools that they had before…if you are basing a lot of your ideas and your thinking on what you know at the time [with no] new exposure…then there is no set of tools,” Cashman clarified. The result is that people experiencing homelessness can become stuck in environments that hold them back, perhaps keeping them from finding a new job or maybe even in a constant state of work that only moves them laterally, not vertically. Listening to each person’s story, as well as attaining affordable housing, can help to eradicate homelessness, one voice — and one house — at a time.
The Visibility of an Invisible Issue
Homelessness affects everyone. It is a visible sign that somewhere within the structure of a community, people have been left out. Cities are constantly developing and growing so the problem then becomes one of affordable room. If society is not aware of the gap between those who have been left out and the lack of affordable housing, many of the stereotypes against those experiencing homelessness become stigmas founded on laziness — that they have brought their current circumstances and burdens upon themselves by not working or not actively trying to find work or improve their lives.
How would society expect someone, who is simultaneously experiencing hardships, to rise above on their own if they have never been taught how to do so? Laziness is an active decision to not take action. So how would those who describe every person experiencing homelessness as lazy, describe those who need to prioritize food and clothing costs over rent? Would they call someone lazy if they knew they had fallen behind establish someone as lazy? Or has “lazy” become the scapegoat word to describe those who are suffering from societal issues we would like to turn a blind eye to?
Many of the issues these people are facing are “quality of life” issues, said Jeff Yungman, director and staff attorney at One80 Place. One of the goals One80 Place has is to raise the standards that people set for themselves. When people settle for nothing, it becomes normal. To strive for anything more than nothing may be hard, once you become used to it. These hardships can lead to bad choices: trespassing, stealing, choices that are avoidable but tempting when they slowly become the only choices you know. Charleston has established a Homeless Court to provide a more understanding system to deal with their mistakes. This is not a way for them to get off easily, nor a way to avoid the court system. It is a step toward hearing their voices and understanding why they have made the decisions they have.
“If they are taking the next step to improve their situation…any progress they made is negated by the fact they are going to jail,” Yungman explained. A key component of justice is fitting the punishment to the crime; what if instead of imprisoning someone who is homeless for stealing, they were given the education and tools needed to buy instead of take? To rent, instead of trespass? Again, not every person experiencing homelessness ends up in the court system. However, when raised in an environment that is chaotic and threatening it can certainly pressure citizens to make bad choices. Especially if they are made for survival. It is easy to sit back and say that they do not deserve a separate court system, or that they should work harder to get a home and so on.
But a person’s story is never truly known from the outside and, by the will of the universe, anyone could be next.
Breaking the Cycle
Breaking the circuit of homelessness will require a mix of solutions. In Charleston, Mayor John Tecklenburg, who was also the President of Crisis Ministries (which later on became One80 Place), is aware of the “inequity in the whole housing market.” Simply put, this community has “a supply and demand problem, there is a demand for affordable housing that is not being met,” Tecklenburg stated. Economically, the tumor that causes homelessness has been detected. Now we must figure out how to medicate the problem.
Socially, some progress has been made. Homelessness is no longer invisible in the Charleston community. Tent City created a very much needed statement, and this social issue has been brought to the surface many times within the past years—the Lowcountry Homelessness Coalition, College of Charleston’s Hunger and Homelessness Week and S.C. Coalition for the Homeless’ Point-In-Time reports have all made tremendous efforts to reveal the true character and magnitude of this issue. The question is now, how to stop the “pervasiveness” of its vicious cycle.
“Get a roof over their head, then you can wrap services around an individual,” Tecklenburg explained. He pledged that those experiencing homelessness are no longer “out of sight [nor] out of mind.” These organizations and people, who have pledged with open eyes and minds to eradicate homelessness, have already taken big measures to create the solutions Tecklenburg has mentioned.
The first step to creating change and recovery is to be educated on the issue at hand. Sending hoards of clothes and materials at a time when a person really needs structure and knowledge may not be as impactful—their most pertinent issue is creating an income and finding a safe place. With this in mind, always call an organization before donating blindly. Ask what is needed and how you can help effectively. If we truly want to eradicate many of the social issues today, the answer then is not just cleaning out our physical closets to donate old clothes. The answer is a matter of cleaning out America’s closets to get rid of the social demons and economic skeletons that are cluttering the corners.
Each stage of life differs from moment to moment and person to person. Solving any social issue begins with breaking down stigmas. Traditional understanding begets stereotypes. Homelessness is not just the man standing on the corner of the street—it is veterans, women and children. Homelessness is not just a need for clothes or food but one of income and an environment to utilize skills and talents. Homelessness is not just a burden for those who are “lazy” but a disease that could plague anyone dealing with transitional living and hard times.
They are everywhere. As of right now, those experiencing homelessness are everywhere. For those experiencing this problem on their own, it is a lonely process filled with hardship and emotion. The next time they are passed on the street loitering in their usual spot or talking on the stoop to a fellow bystander, will they be on the cusp of breaking from that cycle? How close will they be to finding that job or that house?
Homelessness is everywhere, but so is the ability to improve and to heal.
*This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Yard.