Finding a place to live near the city of Charleston can be particularly difficult for young adults just starting out, like Katara Parker.
Parker arrived at One80 Place, a nonprofit that has a homeless shelter on Walnut Street, around nine months ago after she was unable to continue living with a family member.
Parker, 23, is now part of One80 Place's rapid rehousing program, launched earlier this month through U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds. It's one of the Lowcountry’s only programs specifically aimed to serve homeless people ages 18 to 24.
Too old for foster care and too young to have the resources of established adults, such as a rental or job history, transition-age homeless youth can easily slip through the cracks.
Rapid rehousing programs are designed to help people experiencing homelessness quickly find permanent, independent housing. Research has shown they work well for transition-age homeless youth, said Heather Carver, the program director of the Lowcountry Continuum of Care.
Unlike traditional shelters, individuals involved with rapid rehousing projects have a say in where they want to live. Programs typically include three key components: landlord engagement, financial assistance and case management.
Parker has a full-time job and is saving money for her own place. She plans to go back to school and hopes to be out of the shelter by the fall, but it won't be easy.
"Some places you have to make two times the rent, or three. And it's just me by myself, and that's hard," she said. "Because it's like, what am I going to do now?"
The $164,000 rapid rehousing grant isn’t a lot of money, said One80 Place Chief Compliance Officer Amy Wilson, likely enough to assist eight to 16 people over a year.
Hard to measure
In January 2018, over 70 volunteers led by the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition collected data about homeless people in the Lowcountry on one specific night. The data was published in the 2018 South Carolina Point in Time Count Report.
In the seven counties around Charleston, the total number of homeless between 18 and 24 on that night was 33, according to the report, but Wilson said the actual number of homeless youth is likely higher.
"They may be a little more hidden, and it's just one night," Wilson said. One80 Place served around 75 transition-age youth from July 1, 2018 to May 31.
"Even if it’s 75 to 100 individuals over the course of the year — if you can address it then, perhaps you can keep them from continuing to experience homelessness throughout their life," she said.
A different study conducted by the College of Charleston's Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities recorded 62 homeless youth, ages 17-25, living in Charleston County in the spring and summer of 2018. Its report ultimately estimated anywhere from 125 to 175 homeless youth live in Charleston County alone.
This disparity between the reports reflects the different ways their data was collected.
Hiding in plain sight
Homelessness is broadly defined, but many homeless youth don’t fit into HUD’s definition, making the group more difficult to measure.
Some homeless youth don't sleep on streets or under bridges and so don't necessarily fall into HUD's definition.
“They’re couch surfing or sleeping in a motel or staying the night at friends’ houses,” Carver said. “That service doesn’t really fall under ‘homelessness,’ but there needs to be resources for folks like that.”
Bob Kahle, the executive director of research and planning at the Riley Center, said homeless young adults can hide in plain sight.
“One of the things that makes it so hard, especially for student-age folks, is they have a great desire to fit in. They want to be accepted, and they want to be like everybody else,” Kahle said. This desire to blend in, partnered with some young people’s reluctance to say they are homeless or to ask for help, also contributes to underreporting.
Sleeping in the library
Kahle said housing insecurity at the College of Charleston is a "mission critical issue."
A 2017 report estimated that as many as 30 percent of College of Charleston students experience some degree of housing insecurity, an umbrella term that includes everything from sleeping in a car or a public space to not being able to pay rent.
He said he has seen up to a dozen young people sleeping in public places, such as the College of Charleston's Stern Student Center or public libraries. Some stay up all night and sleep during the day, a deliberate and sometimes necessary choice for young people that don’t have a safe and secure place to call home.
"These folks who are in the 18-25 year old category experience homelessness differently than homeless adults," Kahle said.
Kahle cited factors like the increased off-campus housing prices downtown and the extreme debt that many students face that contribute to student housing insecurity.
A 'huge, unmet need'
In 2017, Melissa Moore started a spreadsheet to track of all the calls she received from homeless youth.
Moore is the former executive director of We Are Family, a Charleston-based LGBTQ nonprofit. She received calls from individuals kicked out of their home because of their sexual orientation. Almost 40 percent of the young adults surveyed by the Riley Center identified as LGBTQ.
Other calls came from those fleeing abusive households. She got 17 calls one month.
“It was never an overwhelming number to a layperson," Moore said, "but it was enough to make me realize that this is a huge, unmet need.”
Moore said most Charleston area homeless service organizations are directed toward older adults, and "I got tired of telling young people that I didn’t have anything for them.”
“Oftentimes, group homes in the state won’t take transgender kids because of gender identity issues or they’ll isolate out the LGBT kids. They’re just not set up to be taking care of kids with these different identities.”
She wrote a strategic plan and started looking for money to serve the younger homeless population but met resistance from some who didn't see a problem.
“Well, of course, you don’t see it because it doesn’t look like other homelessness. Young people just kind of fade into the background. It’s less visible,” she said.
The Florence Crittenton Home serves pregnant and parenting young women. The Carolina Youth Development Center's Nu House serves as a house for youth aging out of foster care between 18-21, but does not cater to those already struggling with homelessness.
To help the younger homeless population, Carver said the first step is earning their trust. "They may not have trusted adults before who are in systems-type work or in social services,” she said.
A rapid-rehousing case manager guides youth through the entire rental process, from finding a landlord to improving their credit scores to setting up utilities.
“It can be a difficult process," Carver said. "In my experience, there are youths whose parents put their name on things, so they may have an eviction that’s really from their parents. Or their parents may have used their Social Security number.”
One80 Place must reapply for the youth rapid-rehousing grant next year, but Wilson is optimistic that the program will be renewed.
That's welcome news to Moore. "I would like to see more organizations focused on youth," she said, "because I’m still getting calls from the school district and other places that have these young people and there still just isn’t enough out there for them.”