Homelessness in the Holy City

It takes little more than a quick stroll down King or Market Street to see that Charleston has a homelessness problem. Ranked number one U.S. city by Travel + Leisure six years in a row, this charming southern oasis is not immune to the downsides of booming tourism, namely gentrification. As of 2017, Charleston is the fastest gentrifying city in the nation. Gentrification is the process wherein an influx of high-income people move to working-class areas, thus increasing property values and cost of living to a point unmanageable for many local residents. As this cycle progresses and more people find themselves experiencing housing insecurity, food insecurity and homelessness, the situation becomes increasingly dire for the most vulnerable among them. Women, people on the LGBTQ spectrum, and gender nonconforming individuals experiencing homelessness face a unique set of obstacles and have needs that are not being met by local shelters.

Among the challenges faced by young women experiencing homelessness, one can identify four primary problems menstruation, limited resources during pregnancy, sexual abuse and a lack of access to healthcare. These last two challenges apply not only to cisgender women, but also those on the LGBTQ spectrum, who tend to be especially vulnerable to sexual coercion and abuse on the streets. For the community to adequately address these and other needs, there must first be community awareness of the problem.    

Dr. Bob Kahle, director of research and planning and interim director of the College’s Riley Center, has made it his mission to increase awareness of Charleston’s homelessness problem, particularly when it comes to students and other young people facing these struggles. Dr. Kahle is the head of the center’s YOUth Count, a research program designed to count and identify the needs and assets of young people experiencing housing and food insecurity in Charleston. The first part of the YOUth Count, published in the Spring of 2017, was a survey of students to determine how many were food and/or housing insecure. The second part of the YOUth Count, to be published on March 1st, compiles data from street canvassing and interviews of youth facing homelessness. “We completed 62 interviews with individuals that fit that specification: they’re literally homeless, they’re 25 years or younger, and they’re staying in a place not fit for human habitation,” said Kahle. 

Of those interviews, they found that, “about 54 percent of the population that we encountered are male and about 34 percent report being female. That obviously doesn’t add up to 100 percent. We have 12 percent who are gender nonconforming — another term might be nonbinary — they don’t fit traditional male or female definitions, and we also have some who are transgender youth.” Nonbinary and transgender youth experiencing homelessness, according to Kahle, are most susceptible to sexual coercion and abuse.
While the Riley Center does it’s best to bring awareness to the problem so that steps can be taken to address it, they are not a service provider. Local shelter One80 Place is equipped with one men’s dormitory that can house up to 100 and one family center that can accomodate up to 60 women, parents and children. My Sister’s House, for survivors of domestic abuse, and Florence Crittenton, a residential program for pregnant women between 10 and 20 that includes a postpartum program offer further aid for single mothers, are the only shelters available for women in the Charleston area. These shelters do a great deal of good, but they are limited in scope. 

When asked what should be done, Kahle said his first goal would be to get the pregnant girls off of the street, deal with their [mental] health issues, and get them access to proper healthcare. “Most of these young people can’t get access to medications or immunizations even if they’ve been diagnosed at some point with a condition which requires medication,” said Kahle. Another major priority for Kahle and the Riley Center is addressing sexual abuse and coercion on the streets. Of the population surveyed, 27 percent of men, 55 percent of women, 75 percent of transgender youth and all nonbinary youth on sample reported being sexually coerced. They also found that, of the 22 young LGBTQ people on the sample, 82 percent said that they had been sexually coerced. These numbers speak to an increasingly pervasive human trafficking problem in Charleston, whose damaging impact hits hardest for our city’s most vulnerable. 

There is no question that Charleston’s homelessness problem is a major crisis for all those affected, not just women or LGBTQ youth. Local shelters tend to allocate more space and resources for single men simply because single men are the majority when it comes to homelessness in Charleston and nationwide. This is practicality in the midst of dwindling funds and limited space. However, it is impossible to deny the pressing need for a shelter that accommodates the needs of women and LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness.  At the College of Charleston, steps are being made to provide for students, but additional steps need to be taken by local government and the community at large. We should all be concerned with the needs of those experiencing homelessness in our community, mainly when they are not being met. We cannot truly thrive as a city or as a campus until we address the suffering of our most vulnerable members and make it a mission to address their needs.  

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