The woman on the phone is desperate.
“Please, I need somewhere to stay.”
“I’m sorry,” the voice on the other end replies. “This is a men’s facility.”
Star Gospel Mission’s manager, Joe Morrison, relates the phone conversation that he repeats nearly every day. It was 10:30 p.m. and he’d already said no to three women in two hours.
Every time the phone rings, it’s most likely a woman, often with children, in need of shelter.
The only place he can refer them to is One80 Place, an emergency shelter and rapid rehousing program half a mile away from Star Gospel Mission’s peninsular Charleston location.
Besides One80 Place, homeless women from Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties do not have access to an emergency shelter, a place they can stay in a moment’s notice for free. Another option is Safe Haven Homeless Shelter in Walterboro, 50 miles away from downtown Charleston.
Even longer-term transitional or supportive housing is hard to come by.
“There’s nowhere they can go,” Morrison said. “They’re looking for shelter, but there is none.”
Some women can find shelter if they are victims of domestic violence or are pregnant. My Sister’s House, a domestic violence shelter in North Charleston, provides emergency housing for victims fleeing their abuser.
Florence Crittenton, a program in downtown Charleston that assists pregnant women ages 10 to 21, can provide supportive housing for 10 women. Its waiting list is long, and getting into the program can take months, Executive Director Lisa Van Bergen said.
“We frequently have mothers with children who are seeking housing,” she said. And they turn women away all the time.
Poor, single mothers in the community are the ones who lose the most. If they’re not pregnant and not a victim of domestic violence, there’s only one place for them to go: One80 Place’s Family Center.
It doesn’t matter if they live in Summerville or downtown Charleston, there are only 40 beds available on short notice.
And they’re always full.
The need for housing is all over the tri-county area, but especially in North Charleston, said Anthony Haro, Lowcountry Homeless Coalition’s executive director.
During the Coalition’s “point in time” count in January, they found 35 percent of the total homeless population is female. Eight percent of the homeless population are households with children, and 10 percent of those households are not sheltered.
With little to no services for the homeless in North Charleston, the official number for the city is unknown.
“Just based on their poverty level, we know they will probably have more homeless,” Haro said.
Mayor Keith Summey said in an email that he started a discussion about opening a shelter in North Charleston after Tent City was shut down in April. “I am sympathetic to the plight of the general homeless population, but my main interest lies in establishing a women and children’s shelter in North Charleston,” Summey said.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg proposed a homeless coalition with a summit to meet in October, and Summey agreed to appoint six members to participate.
S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard and Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey also are trying to organize a summit to engage leaders and grassroots efforts. Originally planned for July 21, it was postponed until after the November election.
“We were reluctant to postpone, but working on this issue takes more participation and focus than a hot July full of angry politics and shootings left us to work with,” the postponement announcement read.
In the meantime, women are still calling Star Gospel Mission for help. One80 Place’s Family Center is still full. And its waiting list has 30 people, many of whom have children.
Morrison said with no other options, women are living with family or friends, in tents, on park benches or in their car, if they have one.
Jeff Centers and Gary Beson, both pastors in Summerville, are trying to reopen the former women’s shelter at Palmetto House. But they can’t afford the building’s $450,000 price tag.
They started an interest group of Summerville residents who are trying to raise enough money to either buy the old Palmetto House building or establish a women’s shelter at a different location in Summerville. The first meeting had good turnout, so they know people are interested in helping.
And they are tired of turning women away from the men’s shelters.
“We can’t stand around and wait until we have everything we need to open the shelter perfectly,” Beson said. “Getting something started is better.”
They asked Marty Thomas, Lowcountry Home of Hope’s board president, to open the shelter under his organization.
He agreed but said he would need about $1 million to reopen the women’s shelter — $450,000 for the building and the rest to keep it open while they develop funding for it.
“The last thing I want to do is take a woman and her child off the street, give them hope, a couple months later shut down because I can’t keep the place open,” he said.
Thomas said Home of Hope isn’t in danger of closing but is making just enough to stay open.
After the men’s shelter initially opened in October, Thomas said they received calls daily from women seeking shelter in Summerville. It has since slowed down, but Thomas said those women are still out there.
“The homeless situation is growing, both male and female,” Thomas said. “If we had 200 beds, we’d have them full.”
Home of Hope opened when Palmetto House was still running as a women’s shelter, so they chose to help homeless men. Just a few month’s later, the women’s shelter closed.
Palmetto House had been operating since 1991 after the devastation of Hurricane Hugo. At that time, they served both men and women at a different location.
But after moving to their new location on Elks Lodge Lane, the shelter was struggling to keep its doors open. They asked One80 Place to take over and sold it the building for $5.
One80 operated it for a while but eventually couldn’t keep it open, Wilson said.
The location wasn’t working because of a lack of community support, few transportation options and difficulty securing funding. In addition, it wasn’t rehousing as many homeless women as it was downtown.
“We truly didn’t believe that was the best solution for families in that community,” Wilson said.
She said One80 Place invested more than $1 million in building renovation and services in Summerville. They are now selling the building, which Beson and Centers are trying to buy, for $450,000.
Star Gospel Mission has considered expanding their services to help house women in a separate facility. The board discusses the possibility regularly, according to Executive Director William Christian. Many of the board members want to help, but are nervous about how much money it would take to expand.
“We’d have to hire additional staff,” Christian said. “No question about it.”
And that’s typical for women’s facilities. Running a women’s shelter is more complex because of the wider array of services and facilities needed. Women’s shelters typically have 24-hour security.
“Women and children are far more vulnerable than single men,” Thomas said. “A woman by herself may be as resilient as a man, but with small children, the odds are stacked against her.”
Children’s programs and day care are typically necessary, as well as a larger facility to house families together. Even small things such as bathrooms add extra expense. A men’s shelter only needs a men’s restroom. In a women’s facility, both are needed to accommodate male and female children.
With many shelters struggling to fund their current programs, adding women may push them over the edge.
Van Bergen, executive director of Florence Crittenton, said getting funding for any homeless program is difficult.
“Homelessness is not something people are excited about putting money into right now,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma and judgment that goes along with homelessness.”
Many people assume the homeless do not have jobs and refuse to get one. Van Bergen said more than 90 percent of the women who come into Florence Crittenton are employed but can’t afford rent.
And that’s the major problem.
Charleston and the surrounding counties have little to no options available for affordable housing. The Charleston Housing Authority’s Section 8 housing, which is now called the Housing Choice voucher program, isn’t accepting applications. The demands for affordable housing are exceeding their available resources.
With the population of Charleston growing exponentially, housing costs are soaring.
In 2000, Charleston’s population was just over 96,500. In 2010, it was about 120,000, according to the U.S. census. The increasing number of college students and gentrification of the peninsula are only increasing the average costs of rent. Organization leaders agree that more shelters are needed, but affordable housing is the true solution to homelessness.
“If we only focus on temporary housing, they’ll be homeless for their entire lives,” Haro said.
As Charleston grows homelessness will continue to rise, a problem in a city with only 40 beds for women and children.
“It’s so troubling that women around here don’t feel like they have the options,” Thomas said. “We have to give young women options.”
Without shelter, women and children are forced to stay in parks, tents and cars.
They’ll keep calling Florence Crittenton, Star Gospel Mission and One80 Place, but they get the same answer every time.
There is nothing available.
Reach Alison Graham at 843-745-5555