Homeless family still in limbo

Shannon Jones and daughter Sicely, a fifth-grader, moved into the Crisis Ministries’ Family Center on Wednesday. Her two other children were being brought there by a friend. They left the next day.

The ordeal continues for Shannon Jones and her three children.

The family, homeless since June, has been in nearly constant transit, sleeping in the car for a time. They have turned to motel rooms, trying to prepare for the start of school, and found refuge with a former James Island neighbor.

But Wednesday, after a month-long stay, the family had to leave their temporary accommodations, so they checked into Crisis Ministries, Charleston's homeless shelter.

On Thursday morning they checked out. The three kids -- Sicely, 10, Deanglo, 12, and Syndel, 14 -- were too uncomfortable there, Shannon Jones said.

"The soup kitchen was the final straw. It was really overwhelming for them," she said, while also crediting the shelter for its efforts. "It's hard with kids."

Crisis Ministries staff on Wednesday nearly couldn't take in four new guests. All 30 beds in the Family Center were occupied that morning. But then two people left the center, and the staff made some quick arrangements to find space.

The Jones family was featured in The Post and Courier on Aug. 29 in a front-page story about the growing number of homeless families in South Carolina and the nation. They had been relying on friends, neighbors, emergency financial assistance from area charities and motel rooms for three months. They slept in their SUV during the month of June, until it was repossessed.

The ordeal began years ago when an unhappy marriage led Shannon Jones to take the kids and strike out on her own, she said. Working as a house cleaner, her problems were exacerbated in late 2009 when she was caught up in an attempted burglary that resulted in six weeks of jail time. She said she was inadvertently giving a ride to the perpetrator when the police caught up with them.

Last month, she left a North Charleston motel room after a week-long stay, paid for by Tricounty Family Ministries, because she was out of money and had no transportation she could use to find more emergency aid.

At the last minute, a former neighbor on James Island agreed to take in Jones and her three children. The small house was already full of children, grandchildren and friends. The Jones family used one bedroom and shared a single bathroom with everyone else. It was convenient because the children are enrolled in James Island schools, but they knew it would be short-lived. And when Jones' welcome expired on Wednesday, she held no grudge against her host, whose hospitality helped just when she was faced with living in the streets.

"I understand," Jones said.

When Sonya Jones, team associate in the department of federal programs at the Charleston County School District, heard about the latest move, she decided to make some calls. Sonya Jones, who is not related to Shannon Jones, is responsible for homeless student enrollment and transportation, coordinating education and processing funding applications for institutions housing delinquent or neglected children. She also administers programs mandated by the No Child Left Behind law, such as tutoring and transfer.

Finding accommodations for homeless families is not part of her job description. Nevertheless, Jones called Crisis Ministries Tuesday afternoon and learned that its Family Center was full, she said. Then she called Palmetto House in Summerville, the area's only other homeless shelter that can accommodate families, and learned that it was full. Then she called the city of Charleston's Housing Authority and learned that, while some larger apartments are vacant, Shannon Jones does not fit the criteria for them.

It seemed that all options had been exhausted, and Sonya Jones was dumbfounded, reduced to asking rhetorical questions: What happens to a homeless family when the safety net is insufficient? "Do you tell them, 'That's it, you have to live on the street?' "

The problem has been getting worse, she said. Lately, she's been coping with an increase in homeless students, arranging bus transportation to and from various schools and ensuring the district is in compliance with supplemental education services required by the No Child Left Behind law.

The Jones family is part of a growing number of Americans driven to homelessness by the recession. About one in three homeless people on any given day are members of a family that cannot afford a permanent place to live.

Of the nearly 650,000 people who are homeless on any given night, as many as 200,000 are thought to be military veterans, and about 240,000 are people in families, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The number of homeless families with children has increased significantly in the last decade, and they represent the largest group of people who are homeless in rural areas, the National Coalition for the Homeless reports.

Physical abuse is a risk of homelessness among women who abandon a bad relationship for the street. About half of all homeless mothers nationally report being abused, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Now Shannon Jones and her daughter Sicely are staying with a friend in Ladson. Deanglo, Syndel and the family dog are with a friend on James Island.

Jones has been looking for a job, applying at numerous retail stores, with no success so far. She's been offered work as a house cleaner but has no car.

The lack of transportation is crippling, she said. She can't easily visit the doctor to seek treatment for chronic health problems. She can't drive her kids to school. She can't accept a job that's not in walking distance.

And where she is can change in an instant.