One of the Charleston region’s only programs aimed at helping homeless youth is having success in its first year of operation.
Nonprofits and others who work with homeless individuals hope to expand the rapid rehousing program run by One80 Place, a nonprofit that has a shelter in Charleston, and find sustainable funding sources. The road won’t be easy.
The program started in July with $164,000 in federal grant funding. Originally projected to house eight youth between 18 and 24 years old, the program has helped 16 young people and four children so far after it received a $100,000 private donation, said Marco Corona, One80 Place's chief development officer.
Boosted by the extra funding, the nonprofit hopes to help 20 young people by the time the fiscal year ends in June.
"While it seems on its face that the program is expensive ... what we have to keep in mind is that these are individuals that have very little work experience, little rental history and no credit histories in a lot of cases," Corona said. "It's got its unique challenges."
Counting homeless youth
An annual count of the state's homeless population on one night in January 2019 found 12 homeless youth, defined as those between 18 and 24 years old, in the seven counties around Charleston — a drop from the 33 counted in January 2018.
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.
Experts say homeless counts are imperfect tools that likely undercount but are still useful in crafting policy and coordinating strategies and funding.
Homelessness is broadly defined. Many homeless youth don’t fit into the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition, making the group more difficult to measure.
Youth homelessness in the Lowcountry takes many forms, according to the 2019 statewide report. Some live on the streets on in other situations that are considered "unsheltered." Others stay at emergency shelters, are in transitional housing, couch surf or are "doubled-up," defined as sharing someone else's housing.
"A lot of these youths are coming out of the foster system," Corona said. "They're coming out and there's no real support network."
Heather Carver, program director for Lowcountry Continuum of Care, said HUD only allows the annual homelessness surveys to count individuals who meet the agency's definition of "literally homeless," which means a person is living on the street, in a shelter or in any place not meant for human habitation.
To be eligible for rapid rehousing, a person must meet the definition of being literally homeless, Carver said.
Homeless youth have unique needs and deal with age-specific issues that can make helping them all the more challenging.
They sometimes deal with trauma that is only a few years or even weeks removed, in addition to finding themselves homeless, Corona said.
"The trauma in their past is very recent; they're still processing it," he said. "Sometimes they might have some criminal record or something else that they have to overcome."
Out of the 16 young people assisted so far through One80 Place's rapid rehousing program, four identified as LGBTQ, he said.
For Nijeeah Richardson, executive director of We Are Family, a Charleston-based LGBTQ nonprofit, assisting homeless youth is an important part of her organization's mission.
"A lot of these youths find themselves in situation where they're couch surfing," Richardson said. "They also find themselves in situations where they might have to do sex work to be able to stay somewhere."
How you can help
Rapid rehousing programs have proven to be successful but ending youth homelessness will take the entire community, Carver said.
"We need landlords who are willing to rent to young people who might have low income and zero credit," Carver said. "Without forgiving landlords, projects like (rapid rehousing) don't work."
And the Charleston area continues to face a significant affordable housing crisis, she said.
Despite the challenges, those working to end homelessness are optimistic.
Corona said he and his colleagues at One80 Place are working hard to grow the rapid rehousing program and hope that the community will embrace the approach.
"If we want this to be sustainable, we have to look beyond federal support or an angel investor and really get the community behind it," he said. "If anyone wants to make a donation, they can go to One80Place.org. We will grow the program in a smart way that makes sure that it is sustainable."