By JIM PARKER
The Post and Courier
Seemingly invisible within vibrant, touristy Charleston are people who camp under the overpasses and live on the streets.
Mia Owens witnesses dozens of them most Fridays, in line for food and assistance offered by a volunteer group she started called Feed a Friend.
“We (the general populace) don’t want to see the homeless,” Owens contends. “I call them the Holy City ghosts.”
Owens, a Realtor with Carolina One Real Estate’s Longpoint Road office in Mount Pleasant, not only empathizes but feels their pain: at one point in her life, she was in a position not too much different from Charleston’s homeless.
“Honestly, I was a single Mom for awhile, with three kids, on child support.” There were days that she and the kids went hungry.
The one-parent family endured the tough times, and Owens eventually landed a job in real estate. “God is good,” she says. She remarried and lives with her second husband off Clements Ferry Road. The couple have five children aged 24 to 29, including her three from the earlier failed marriage, and six grandchildren.
She earned an honor this year for her work with the homeless, winning the C. Dan Joyner Community Service Award from the S.C. Association of Realtors.
Owens was born in Brazil and lived there until she was five when her parents moved to the Charleston area.
After her first marriage broke up, Owens says she “did everything under the sun” as a single parent. While selling radio advertising, she appeared in a commercial for a builder, who urged her to get involved in real estate. Her first position was showing a model house for Jessco Homes. She later switched to Carolina One New Homes and then to general brokerage with Carolina One Real Estate in 2009.
“I love real estate. (You) set your own hours, give yourself a raise,” she says. “The (housing) market is incredible. Demand has tripled.”
Owens says she had been blessed. By last year, she was more than eager to give back. “I just wanted to do something,” she says.
Drawing on her days when she and the kids struggled to afford food, Owens — in an inspired moment — prepared meals of soup and sandwiches and drove around town looking for people in need. She asked a friend or two to pitch in and put a call-out on Facebook.
Owens soon settled on a vacant lot on Meeting Street not far from the Crisis Ministries shelter. It is used by the Charleston Random Acts of Kindness charitable group one day a week to help the homeless.
She started up what came to be Feed a Friend Charleston 5-6 p.m. every Friday. The initial one was on the first Friday in November 2011. She has a number of volunteers who assist her as well as aides from the Random Acts organization. Helpers can also visit her website at www2.mysignup.com/fafchs to pick times to volunteer.
On any given Friday about 12 to 15 people pitch in with food and supplies for at least 60 people. The highest count was 105, she says.
Feed a Friend quickly evolved from a program to feed the hungry to a broader-based effort to help the homeless, including the soup and sandwich meals in the winter and pasta or other food in the summer; clothing drives; tents, blankets and covers for people living below overpasses; and distributing “blessing bags” every two months for the homeless that are filled with supplies such as toothbrushes and toiletries.
Owens is seeking nonprofit status for Feed a Friend. Now she relies on gifts, such as from Carolina One Real Estate, to cover expenses. She also wants to spread the program to North Charleston, James Island and other places in the Charleston area.
She notes that most of the people who come by for help are employed but may have lost their home to foreclosure in the market downturn starting in 2007-08.
“We have regular people who work (and) can’t afford food,” she says.
About a dozen homeless appear most every Friday; not all of them are employed. “We try to give them jobs,” she says. One regular painted the Owens’ home this year. He went on to secure housing and now has a full-time job on Daniel Island. “He’s a success story; We see success stories,” Owens says.
Sometimes, the stories are poignant. Once, a man without any hands joined the Feed a Friend line. Using his metal hook appendages, he got a plate and asked if he could set it down on the back of a nearby truckbed, where he quietly ate his meal. The group gave him a pair of shoes, and he walked back to the “camp” under the bridge.
Another time, “A homeless man gave me 37 cents,” insisting on paying his share, Owens says. “I have that in a jar (as a reminder).”
For more information, visit the Feed a Friend Charleston fan page on Facebook.
Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.