An azure sky and spring temperatures offer a rare balm of comfort to those lined up single file behind downtown Charleston’s Crisis Ministries, the state’s largest provider of homeless services.
The mid-day sun streams down in stark contrast to their realities: homelessness caused by unemployment, substance abuse, mental and other illnesses, abusive relationships and countless other hardships.
Inside a waiting room, a man and woman banter about health problems and finding low-rent places to live away from drugs and temptations.
They talk about new beginnings.
A door to a staff area opens, a literal door, although it’s the figurative door that Jeff Yungman most often opens for folks here, a door to the complex, frustrating web of the legal system, one few of them know how to navigate or could afford to regardless.
But Yungman, a lanky man with friendly blue eyes, has opened that door in a one-man crusade that took him from the New Orleans police force to a career in social work and then a slightly post-midlife stint through law school.
Now he directs the Crisis Ministries Homeless Justice Project, which last year served more than 500 clients for whom the legal system loomed among the highest peaks in a vast range of hopelessness.
Yungman’s office is a cozy space with red brick walls, a kaleidoscope of Mardi Gras beads and Christmas lights hanging in long strings.
Jazz music fills the air. A sign on the door shows a glass of water and the words: Half Full.
Perfect as this job is for him, he didn’t take an especially straight path to get here.
The Ohio native majored in sociology and moved to New Orleans, a city whose vibe enchanted him then and now. When he heard the city police department had an opening, he applied.
“I thought it would be an interesting job, especially in New Orleans,” he recalls.
Trouble was, he didn’t much like arresting people.
Yungman preferred social justice to criminal justice. After two years, he went back to school and got his master’s in social work and public health, eventually moving into child protective services where he met his future wife, Julie, also a social worker.
They met over an abandoned newborn. Then, they went to lunch.
They have been married for 28 years and have three children. Tasha, now 28, and Matthew, 22, were foster children they adopted. Their son, Nate, 16, is a biological child.
Along the way, they moved to Julie’s native South Carolina. After several stops, Yungman became Crisis Ministries’ clinic director in 1999.
“This was the population I wanted to work with,” he says. “I just knew this was my niche. It fit my temperament, my political philosophy, my social work philosophy. I’m not a counselor. I’m an advocate. I like making changes to the system and helping people change themselves.”
He found plenty of need.
About 1,600 clients stay at the shelter each year due to myriad issues. One is especially vexing. Many shelter clients are unable to work due to psychiatric or other medical problems.
Yet, they often wait years for disability benefits.
During that time, most have no income, and, therefore, no hope of finding a permanent home.
Yungman saw people die waiting, including veterans.
Other clients’ homelessness was fueled by family law, tenant/landlord, immigration and child support issues they couldn’t afford an attorney to resolve.
Then in 2003, he read a newspaper story about a new law school coming to Charleston. He turned to Julie.
“I want to go to law school,” he said.
He grins widely remembering her response: “You’re crazy.”
Shortly after, he took his family to IHOP. His daughter was grown. His son, Matthew, was a teen; Nate was 7.
He was 52.
He told them his dream. It would require sacrifices.
Julie supported what he wanted to do. Matthew, the teenager, was ambivalent.
But Nate said, “I’ll miss you.”
So Yungman made a promise to his youngest child, to spend one weekend day with him each week no matter what. It would prove a hugely challenging promise to keep.
At his Charleston School of Law orientation, someone spoke of students taking 12 credit hours at once. Doubt filled Yungman’s dream.
Then, during his first year, Yungman’s younger brother died from complications after surgery. They had been close, and the death was devastating.
His daughter also came home to live with her two small children.
Julie took several part-time jobs to provide flexibility in her schedule. And if Yungman was home, everyone knew where to find him. Julie recalls endless hours he spent in one chair at the kitchen table studying.
They took it day by day and didn’t look at the enormity of his goal.
“If you think of everything that could go wrong, you’ll talk yourself out of things,” Julie says.
Luckily, Julie shares his passions. She works with psychiatric ER teams at several local hospitals and teaches foster parenting classes.
Yet, many nights leaving Crisis Ministries and heading to class, rather than home to his family, Yungman thought of quitting.
“You’re the one who chose to do this,” he’d tell himself.
He remained focused on the people he met at the shelter.
“This need was here, and it wasn’t being filled,” Yungman recalls. “And it was a vital need.”
In the end, he graduated with the law school’s first class and received its award for leadership and public service.
After passing the bar in 2008, he became director of the new Crisis Ministries Homeless Justice Project, which provides free civil legal assistance to homeless Charleston area residents.
In the 2011-12 fiscal year, the project served more than 500 people with 700 legal issues.
The project is funded by the S.C. Bar Foundation, Charleston School of Law, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services and others.
Yungman isn’t aware of another homeless shelter in the U.S. with an attorney working full time on site.
But being there means his clients, overwhelmed with daily survival issues and often dealing with mental health and substance abuse problems, don’t have to go from the homeless shelter or the streets to knocking on attorneys’ doors for help.
More than half of his clients are veterans.
That’s why he has helped develop a local Veterans Treatment Court and brought Charleston County into a national network of pilot projects called the Veterans Child Support Initiative.
“It is criminal to put veterans in jail because they can’t pay because of injuries they sustained fighting for this country,” Yungman says. “They sure aren’t going to pay it while they’re in jail.”
He admits frustration with the legal system and Social Security hearing office. Charleston judges approve the lowest percentage of disability claims of any region of the state.
“I bring people forward because I believe they are disabled,” Yungman says. “My frustration is when I can’t get as much done as I’d like to for them.”
Outweighing that is the hope he provides many.
He points to one man he found living in a patch of woods in North Charleston after spending 20 years in prison and suffering mental health problems. Yungman helped him get benefits that provided a small income to live on.
When Yungman broke the news, the man began to cry.
“I just never allowed myself to hope that I would get approved,” the man said.
Yungman had two law school students with him at the time. “See, that’s why this is important work to do,” he told them.
No saying no
For his work, Yungman has won numerous public service awards and was honored by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Poverty and Homelessness (which he now serves on).
He’s also an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina College of Social Work and at the Charleston School of Law.
“I have a bad habit of not saying no,” Yungman admits. “But there’s not one day I leave here and don’t feel I’ve made a difference.”
At 62, Yungman jokes that maybe Nate will take over his cause at Crisis Ministries. By then, the shelter will be operating out of a new, larger building.
“There was a time when we didn’t have to turn away people,” Yungman says. “Now, I can’t think of a time when there isn’t a line.”
Yungman scans his quirky office, jammed with memories, wondering aloud how many people have sat in its chairs explaining their paths into homelessness — and how many have successfully moved out.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.