The young man was 18, maybe 19, when Bob Kahle came upon him last year in Charleston's Marion Square.
He offered him a drawstring bag filled with food. The youth opened the bag, pulled out a Chef Boyardee canister, and used his fingers to scoop out the pasta and eat it. He quickly moved on to the remaining milk, cereal, fruit and vegetables.
"By the time I was done there, he'd consumed it all," Kahle said.
Homelessness is a reality for at least 125 young people in Charleston County, according to an estimate from a new report by the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston.
Kahle, the center's director of research and planning, was the principal investigator on this project, which included interviews with 62 youths and involved about 135 volunteers. More than 500 care packages, filled with food and toiletries were handed out to youth across the county.
The goal was to get a better sense of the county's youth homeless population and better inform leaders and community organizations about the needs of the homeless under the age of 25.
"Charleston is a destination city, not just for tourists," Kahle told community leaders Friday morning. "It is a destination city for young people experiencing homelessness."
These youth often stay with friends, in streets, parks or abandoned buildings. Some stay in hotels or motels.
The project didn't just focus on their living situations. Most of the youths interviewed struggled to get enough to eat. Others had experienced sexual trauma or other violence. Many were LGBTQ, a higher percentage than in the state youth population, the report found.
"We have to ask ourselves, why is it we have so many LGBTQ kids on the street?" Kahle said.
Locally, there are efforts to help all homeless youth:
- A federal grant of $165,000 will allow for more services.
- The Charleston Police Department recently started training officers on the city's hate crime ordinance and how to better interact with LGBTQ people.
- A screening tool will be added to the county jail to take a proactive approach to identify human trafficking victims.
But hurdles remain: South Carolina is tied with Alabama as the worst state in the country when it comes to working to end youth homelessness, according to a report released last year by the True Colors Fund and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Amy Wilson, chief compliance officer for One80 Place, a nonprofit that has a shelter on Walnut Street in Charleston, said state government isn't doing much to help.
"There is no dedicated source of funding for the issue at the state, the county or the local level that is specific to homeless services. You will be hard pressed to find another state where that's the case," she said Friday. "So for those of us doing this work, it's an uphill battle almost sort of at the get-go."