MONCKS CORNER — Hundreds of women in the Charleston area don't have a safe place to call home. With few choices available, many take refuge in motels, their cars or the woods. But now, two transition houses are opening their doors specifically to women.
The houses are the longtime goal of Walking Women Welfare, a group devoted to assisting women affected by homelessness. Some of the group's volunteers have struggled with homelessness themselves, learning firsthand how little assistance or attention is available.
The group searched for a rental house for over a year to use as a shelter. They'd scour listings, trying to find the right price, the right location, the right fit.
But month after month, they received nothing but rejections. Many of the women felt it was the stigma of homelessness standing in their way.
Then, finally, the group got its chance. Pastor Alfrieda Deas-Potts, a leader of Walking Women Welfare, spoke to a man in her recovery program who was moving out of his Moncks Corner home but was unsure of how to pay the mortgage. She offered him a solution: Her group would move in and make sure it got paid.
After so much searching, that conversation in October rapidly turned into a November move-in. The group had the furniture and volunteers ready. It was time to make the home they dreamed of — and prepare for a second house to open in December.
Putting the pieces together
The group's leaders began bright and early on a recent Saturday.
On that day, they put together a house for five women in desperate need of somewhere to live — a detour from their regular Saturday routine of packing into their cars to visit motels across North Charleston, where they'd give out clothes, food and hygiene products to women without their own homes.
After they rolled up to the house, they wasted no time getting it ready. First came the washer and dryer, then the beds and mattresses. A couch, a dresser, a dining room table. For months, the furniture sat in a storage unit and in Deas-Potts' garage. While volunteers loaded it into the house, some women stopped to take it all in.
"It smells good. I just love the smell," Deas-Potts said. The Faith Abides program for women will be modeled on her Bounce Back facility, a transitional housing program for homeless men that she started in North Charleston in 2007. Some of those residents helped move in the women's furniture.
Once the furniture was in place, it was time to start the "beautification," as one woman called it.
Some women devoted themselves to the living room, moving the couch this way or that, trying to make it fit with the other chairs. At some points they worried that maybe they'd grabbed too much furniture and would have to transport some back.
"We're just getting it ready, it doesn't need to be perfect," one woman called out.
Lynette Woods, who will be the "house mother," came back with food to stock the shelves and the refrigerator. While getting the house ready for the five women, she also prepared to move in herself.
"Right now, it's hectic, and I love it," Woods said.
When she first heard the group had found a house, Woods said she immediately started crying. On their many days of outreach in the community, Woods often spent half the time on her phone, searching for suitable rental homes to apply for. The endless rejections weighed on her.
Faith Roberts, another volunteer for Walking Women Welfare, had the same reaction. "I cried. I was so overwhelmed with joy and excitement and gratitude," Roberts said.
"This is faith in action. We truly believed from the bottom of our hearts that this was going to be," she said. "This is a reward. All of that staying up, all of that calling people and getting turned down."
That sense of relief and joy filled the house on the day of the move-in. Laughing, singing, the women divided and conquered.
One volunteer, Darlene Corbett, tackled the hall bathroom. Pink is her favorite color, Corbett said, so she hung pink towels beside the floral shower curtain. A group of women started assembling curtains for the living room, while others began readying the bedrooms.
Besides culminating a year of planning and hoping, the project was also a trial run. This house was only the first, Deas-Potts said. Her organization is ready to keep growing.
Addressing the need
Women affected by homelessness can be particularly vulnerable to abusers and predators, but there aren't as many resources to help women get back on their feet as there are for men facing homelessness.
Safe, affordable housing can be particularly difficult to find, even in a shelter. There are few shelters in the Charleston area, and even fewer for single women.
The 2019 State of Homelessness Report conducted by the S.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness counted 1,632 people affected by homelessness in the Lowcountry. About 30 percent, or 483 individuals, were women and 13 percent of the homeless said they were taking care of at least one child. Many service providers say these numbers are an undercount.
Shontia Gilliard started the Favor Foundation in 2017 to provide outreach to the homeless. The job can be challenging, she said. In October, one woman called her, desperate for housing. Gilliard reached out to everyone she knew in Charleston but couldn't find anyone able or willing to help.
"There really isn't anything if you're just a woman who needs a place to live," Gilliard said.
That frustration led her to partner with Walking Women Welfare. At the beginning of December, Gilliard will open a home in North Charleston to serve and house five women.
The house will be open to women who face numerous obstacles, including domestic violence or addiction. "It doesn't matter the reason why you're homeless," she said.
Gilliard will use her connections and knowledge to refer the women to agencies that can help them get training and employment.
She hopes the resources for homeless women will keep increasing. Right now, the need is greater than the help available, and she's often given the runaround when she tries to connect women to needed services.
"It's always, oh, call this person," Gilliard said. "It's my goal to be a one-stop shop." When someone calls her, she wants to be able to help right away, rather than passing the person along.
"We want to help women. We want them to feel loved, we want them to feel important and valued," Gilliard said.
Creating a sisterhood
In the flagship Moncks Corner home, five women are just settling in.
Tatetia Cross has been homeless for a year. After losing her employment, she's spent the last several months living in a Holiday Inn.
"Now, I don't have to worry if I'm going to have a roof over my head," she said after moving into the Faith Abides home.
During the last year, she was often dependent on help from friends or even strangers. She'd reach out to Facebook groups for help as she lived "day by day," Cross said.
Since moving in, she said she has felt a love and respect that's been missing. "I survived," Cross said. "They gave me a home."
For Cassandra Joy Graves, getting the call that she could live in the Faith Abides home was one of the best things that ever happened to her.
"For a long time, I kept saying, I can do it on my own," Graves said. For months she lived with a relative in Columbia, where she grew up, but said she never had any quiet or peace of mind. She had trouble searching for a new place to live because of the COVID-19 pandemic and her disability, which leaves her unable to work.
One morning after moving in, she awoke in her new bed and realized she was out of that situation. "It was such a good feeling. I feel like I'm at home."
Another new resident, Ellen Bennett, said she was left completely homeless after a family living situation turned sour. She's been unemployed due to the pandemic.
She feels lucky she was able to connect with Walking Women Welfare and move in so quickly.
"There's a sisterhood here," Bennett said.
Rosie Peltz, who has lived in various shelters in the Charleston area, said there's a world of difference between that life and living in this house.
She has her own space, but more than that, she feels like someone's finally listening to what she's experiencing. With other assistance programs, she felt that her problems were ignored or that promises to help her weren't kept.
"This is more like being with a family," Peltz said.
For Deas-Potts, that family is only going to keep getting bigger. Along with Favor Foundation's new house in North Charleston, Deas-Potts said the group is eyeing a house in Hollywood as the next project.
"We knew that once people saw it could be done, more people would be coming forward," she said.
Next month, volunteers still will be doing outreach, stopping by motels, parking lots and even the woods, looking for both men and women who need help. That help can be a bowl of soup, a bar of soap, or just someone to listen. The work doesn't end with one house, or even the 10th.
It takes women to help women, the Walking Women Welfare group believes. And they're just getting started.