The former North Charleston school that has caused headaches and legal woes for Charleston County school officials could become the city’s only homeless shelter.
While some North Charleston churches have programs to help the homeless, South Carolina’s third-largest city does not have a formal shelter for the hundreds estimated to be homeless there.
In a plan to fill that need, Charleston County school leaders and North Charleston city officials have been in talks about a potential land swap that would give the school district some land on Remount Road near North Rhett Avenue to build a school. In return, the city would get the former Charlestowne Academy building on Rivers Avenue, next to the Jones Ford car dealership.
“I think we can take that building and make it something positive for the community,” North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said.
He said in the near term, if the deal goes through, the city intends to let Jones Ford use the property as a car lot while the dealership goes through an expansion project. Then, the city would turn the building into a homeless shelter.
“We want to do that, and some other things, like job training,” Summey said.
At World Harvest Community Church in North Charleston, Senior Pastor Thomas Clayton said there’s certainly a need. The church used to let dozens of homeless people sleep in its building on inflatable mattresses. More recently, it set up a group of mobile homes behind the church for temporary housing.
“I’ve got about 15 people right now staying with us,” he said. “What I’ve done is, I rescued them out of tents, and they are staying in trailers behind the church.”
“They were camped out behind the (Crisis Ministries) shelter downtown,” Clayton said. “We’ve got a little community going now.”
William Howard, 53, is among those living in the trailers, which have no heat or electricity.
“If it wasn’t for Pastor Tom, I’d be sleeping in the woods,” Howard said. “People don’t realize how many homeless people there are.
Crisis Ministries operates the area’s largest homeless shelter, with about 120 beds in downtown Charleston. The group also operates a 20-bed facility for homeless families in Summerville.
“Mayor Summey and I have had conversations about the needs in North Charleston and what demographic would benefit the most from a shelter setting,” Crisis Ministries Executive Director Stacey Denaux said. “We’re delighted that others in the community are looking at the need.”
Summey estimates there could be about 500 homeless people in North Charleston, but he said that’s just a gut feeling.
“The economy, the way it’s been over the past few years, you have people who are homeless who have done nothing to become that way,” he said. “We want to help people get out of homelessness.”
Neither the school district nor the city has approved the land swap, which would need School Board and City Council approval.
The former Charlestowne Academy building most recently was the home of Healing Ministries Church, which was pastored by county school board member Chris Collins.
Collins’ lease of the building from the district proved controversial. The church appeared to violate its lease with the school district, then it refused to leave the building when its lease ended.
District officials began the legal process of formally evicting the church, but then attorneys from both sides agreed the church would leave by Sept. 6.
Mike Bobby, the district’s chief of finance and operations, said the district’s decision to work with North Charleston on the property exchange pre-dates the church leaving the building and is unrelated to that situation.
School district leaders have been working on what the next school construction program would include, and the northern part of North Charleston is rapidly growing. That area is one of the top three — the others are the north end of Mount Pleasant and the Bees Ferry Road area in West Ashley — where the district will need more seats and buildings, Bobby said.
“These discussions are part of the ongoing long-range planning that is so necessary to stay far ahead of the curve,” he said.
He wouldn’t say what the grade configuration of the new school would be, and he said the sense of urgency to make this deal happen has been the same for some time.
Bobby is obtaining an appraisal for the Charlestowne Academy building and will present a proposal to the county school board about the land and its vacant building. He already has briefed the board’s audit and finance committee about this potential swap.
“We have some needs in North Charleston, and the city of North Charleston has some needs, and we might be able to create an exchange of assets that’s of benefit to taxpayers,” he said.
Summey said the city is offering the district unused land at MeadWestvaco Park, with the idea that the park could serve a potential school as well as community residents.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.
“Knowing someone cares about you helps a lot,” said William Howard, who is staying in a small mobile home park that World Harvest Community Church provides — and expects its otherwise homeless residents to help maintain.×