You can hear "Andrew" rhyming from down the hall. Sitting in the cafeteria at a North Charleston youth shelter, his rap sounds confident and passionate. A hip-hop beat rattles out of his headphones as he jots down lyrics for a song about making it in this world.
A victim of child abuse and neglect, Andrew left home with nowhere to go — spending two of Charleston's coldest nights on the sidewalk.
"I'm happy I'm alive, because I could have died on those streets those two days," he says.
A police officer stopped him, and Andrew was forced to tell his story. The state got involved and brought him to the Carolina Youth Development Center in North Charleston — which has a temporary shelter for homeless kids.
"I choose to stay in here, because after being homeless — after running away for two days, you know, shoot, a place to eat, a place to stay, hot shower, and still get to go to my same school, a lot of things are shaping up," he says. "There's a lot of things that can happen. I'm getting in touch with my real family that's like 1,500 miles away. But still, I got hope."
Help with that Hope
Resources are sparse in the best of times, but the recession has only increased the demand and tested the supply of aid to the homeless. That includes a growing number of young people struggling on their own or living on the streets with their parents.
The Charleston County School District has helped more than 600 homeless students since last June. The school district's definition for homeless children includes those living in a shelter, in homes with more than one family, living in a low-budget motel, living with a family who has been evicted, and living with no place to go or no family and friends.
The district established the Children in Crisis Fund, which provides help for children and their families who need everything from getting their utilities turned back on, a night or two in a hotel, groceries, or other emergencies. The district also recently launched a donation drive for basic necessities like deodorant, toothbrushes, and combs.
Sonya Jones, Title I compliance monitor for the Department of Categorical Programs, sees to it that the school district provides adequate services to assist homeless students with relocating between schools and helping parents with jobs or housing. She says the district doesn't stop until it runs out of options.
It's not just about getting them in a school five days a week, Jones says. "We're also about the whole child."
In one case, a mother lost her job at a local fast food restaurant. She couldn't afford her rent and had to move to a cheap motel. The children were absent for days at a time because of lack of transportation, leading to a visit by Jennifer Singleton, a parent advocate with the school district. She's responsible for monitoring child attendance.
The kids couldn't get to school, so Singleton picked them up in the mornings and they caught the bus to a friend's or a relative's house after school.
Singleton and Jones struggled to find ways to accommodate the family.
"She was able to stay with her relatives for one night and ended up having to go to the shelter," Singleton says. "At the shelter you had to be eligible at a certain time, and they were literally on the street during the day and the next to the youngest child had asthma. That I didn't know. So what I did — I took them in my home, and the mother stayed at the shelter."
Singleton funded this mostly out of her own pocket. She and the mother struggled hard to find help.
"We went to the different agencies to try to get money," Singleton says. "Charleston County Human Services — they didn't have any funds. We went to the City of Charleston Housing Authority — they didn't have any emergency shelters available."
Calls for subsided housing help were also fruitless. Frustrated and desperate, the mother broke down. They decided it was time for her to go to a city where she could get a new start.
"I said 'I'll keep the kids, they'll stay with me,' and she was able to stay on her friend's couch," Singleton says. "As fate would have it, she was looking for employment there, ran into somebody, told her story, and that person works for the housing authority. She got her housing. She's working now."
"I get asked a lot, why do you take things so far?" Singlton says. "It's for the children. It's for the children."
The district has help, too. Trader Joe's has provided furniture when kids were found sleeping on the floor. Bluesteed's Clothing offers uniforms, and Yellow Cab give rides to children who have had to make a quick move and don't have a bus running to their home yet.
"We have a lot of quiet angels in our community, people who do things behind the scenes that we wouldn't even know," Jones says.
At the Bottom
A lot of what the school district does involves families on the brink of homelessness. Those at the end of the rope are aided by Crisis Ministries, one of the region's most recognized shelters.
"We provide emergency shelter and housing, as well as case management, counseling, whatever services a family may need to not be homeless anymore," says Executive Director Stacey Deneaux.
Crisis Ministries keeps people for as long as they need to be there. If they're consistently looking for ways to better their situation. If they're working with their case worker and crafting a self-sufficiency plan, they may be allowed to stay in a home owned by Crisis Ministries.
Deneaux says the issue isn't a new problem that showed up with the sour economy.
"Our spike in family homelessness hit the community around 2006," Deneaux says. "So family homelessness has been a growing issue long before the recession."
Challenges arise when getting families organized again.
Many of these parents never developed good parenting skills, Deneaux says, so that's an important factor in the ministries' program.
Crisis Ministries sees every sort of parent, from single moms to single dads to married couples dealing with homelessness and other severe living issues. Different types of famillies stay at the shelter for various lengths of time. Families tend to get out quicker than individuals.
"I think it's just easier for the two parents to kind of get organized and sort of tag-team all the different things that need to happen to get them out of here," Deneaux says. "Single dads stay here the shortest amount of time. They want to get out of there as fast as they can."
Cases involving runaway children are sent to the Carolina Youth Development Center, the North Charleston facility where we met Andrew.
The center's shelter and family-counseling program serving runaway and homeless kids has assisted nearly 100 young people in the past three years — that's compared to just over two dozen in the few years before that. Meanwhile, the state budget for social programs has been cut by 40 percent in the last six months, dramatically impacting CYDC's resources.
"We receive per diem reimbursement for children in our shelters and group homes, and that fee for service has been cut significantly," says Kate Lloyd, director of development at the center. "This has meant increased fundraising activities to make up the difference."
On a positive note, the recession has brought out a wealth of support.
"We have seen more volunteers than ever before, which helps in many ways," Lloyd says. "People are really conscious of the need for helping others."
The CYDC provides licensed professionals who offer career training, life skills, and tutoring. Whether it is individual or group counseling, the ultimate goal is to help these kids grow up.
"Our tag line is 'Protecting Childhood. Preparing for Adulthood',"Lloyd says. "These services make us unique among child-serving agencies in our state."
The shelter can only house children up to 21 days by federal law. If they're runaways, they get sent back to their families. If they don't have families, they get sent to the Department of Social Services.
The CYDC has a variety of services for these disadvantaged children with as much as they're legally permitted to do.
Their job is made easier with the initiative of young people like Andrew.
"I'm going to make it out of here," he says. "You know, a lot of people say, 'You're in the system.' That doesn't mean you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get out of the situation. So I am going to do what I gotta do."
This young man's got some plans for when he ventures out into the world.
"Continue to go to school, you know," Andrew says. "Make a lot of people proud by going to college. And if this music thing I'm doing right now works out, I am going to still go to school. I am still going to get an education, because you can't be dumb in this world. A lot of things can happen to you. I plan on being a millionaire — do what I can."