The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina) Sunday, August 28, 2011

No place to call home: Local Mom and 3 Kids Part of a Growing, and Unsettling, National Crisis

By Adam Parker

They share a small bedroom in someone else's house on James Island.

Deanglo Jones, the 12-year-old who is prone to asthma, gets half of the queen-size bed. His sisters, Syndel, 14, and Sicely, 10, share the other half. Every other night, one of the girls sleeps on the narrow floor space between the bed and the dresser.

On the other side of the bed next to the closet, their mother Shannon Jones positions herself atop folded blankets.

At least for now, Shannon Jones (from left) and her children Deanglo, 12, holding their dog Corona; Syndel, 14; and Sicely, 10, are able to share a home with another family, away from the North Charleston motel where they had been living for weeks.

This situation, made possible by a generous former neighbor, is an improvement.

The Jones family is part of a growing number of Americans driven to homelessness by the recession of 2008. About one in three homeless people on any given day are members of a family that cannot afford a permanent place to live.

A couple of weeks ago, they were all sharing a seedy motel room in North

Charleston, cooking bacon in the microwave, washing clothes in the sink.

Before that they stayed a week at another motel where they witnessed drug deals and prostitution, Jones said.

The family had hoped to avoid seedy motels. They had spent a month sleeping in a sport utility vehicle. They put the seats down, covered the windows with blankets and found a spot in the parking lot of the old Walmart in West Ashley.

But then the SUV was repossessed because its owner failed to keep up with the payments.

Homelessness in the United States is a chronic problem that has been exacerbated by the recession of 2008, but the stereotype of a bearded man with a bottle in a paper bag, living under a bridge, is no longer a representative icon.

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. And many more families teeter on the edge.

Demand at food banks and pantries, as well as requests for emergency financial assistance, are on the rise, national data show, a trend that local nonprofits have confirmed in recent months.

And physical abuse heightens the risk of homelessness among women who often abandon a bad relationship for the street. Approximately half of all homeless mothers nationally report being abused, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Juggling uncertainty

Before the Jones family was forced to sleep in the SUV, they endured a year of conflict and unhappiness in a downtown house, which they shared with Jones' former common-law husband. And before that they lived in a couple of James Island rentals.

All the while, Jones' jobs -- she cleans houses -- disappeared. At one time she had a dozen clients who paid her well, she said. She worked six days a week.

Shannon Jones and her daughters Sicely and Syndel spent their summer in North Charleston motel rooms after the family was not able to get into their own home.

But the economy soured, and by the end of 2008, her clients had to make choices. One doctor told her it was either the nanny or the house cleaner. Jones had four clients left when the SUV was repossessed, leaving her no way to reach her customers. It became impossible for her to keep working and parenting at the same time, she said.

It was a slow-motion fall that ended with a hard landing. Shannon Jones, 34, and her three kids now have no home of their own. They receive $600 a month in federal food assistance. They have no other income.

Lately, Jones has been worried about the start of school. Because the family used to live on James Island, her three kids are enrolled in schools there. Less than a week before classes started, they were living in a North Charleston motel, and Jones was wondering how they would get to and from school.

The emergency financial assistance she received from Tri-County Family Ministries paid for a week at the motel, but then the money ran out. With no transportation and no inclination to leave her kids alone at the motel, she couldn't return to the charity for more aid, she said.

So she asked Trish McLaughlin, who was staying with her stepson two doors down, to drive her and the kids to James Island. The sun blazed hot overhead as they loaded their possessions into McLaughlin's van.

Jones said she had made no arrangements; she only hoped to run into someone she knew. Perhaps an acquaintance would let them pitch a tent in his backyard. Perhaps an old neighbor would open a door.

Seeking shelter

Sheltering a family in the Charleston area is difficult. Most temporary housing is designed for individuals.

Tri-County Family Ministries, the faith-based charity located in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood of North Charleston, operates a "Families in Transition" program. The program assists homeless families by giving them temporary shelter in an apartment and providing counseling, food aid and other services.

A building on Reynolds Avenue currently is being renovated and soon will include three transitional housing apartments.

Crisis Ministries, Charleston's homeless shelter, opened its Family Center in 1991. The center, which has 30 beds, accommodates single women, women with children and couples. A nearby Transitional Living Center has four apartments for families on the mend financially.

The shelter administers rapid rehousing and homeless prevention programs funded with federal stimulus money. Thanks to proactive intervention, 219 families and 468 children avoided homelessness since late 2009, according to Crisis Ministries Executive Officer Stacey Denaux.

But this kind of help must be accompanied by larger efforts to protect people from homelessness, she said. In recent years, Crisis Ministries staff members have noted reductions in health benefits for their clients, inadequate supplies of affordable housing and fewer low-wage jobs.

Helping people who are teetering toward homelessness by giving them financial assistance is important, but not enough, Denaux said.

"My fear is we've just delayed the inevitable with this money," she said.

Day by day

On Monday, Jones and her three children shared a bedroom in the James Island house of their former next-door neighbor. Quarters were cramped, and the house often filled up with people.

But at least the family was out of the heat and able to cook a meal. And the children were back on the school bus route.

It was a temporary situation. Jones, who has no relatives in the Charleston area, knew she had to find a home of her own, so she spent much of her time during the last two weeks applying for jobs at various retailers. She signed on with two temporary work agencies.

Deanglo and Sicely returned to the same school they left in the spring, but Syndel started at James Island High School, and she said she was a little nervous.

The high schooler registered late because she couldn't provide a permanent address, so she had to settle for art class instead of marketing. But she is part of the Junior ROTC and plans to join the military after she graduates. Then she can go to college on the GI Bill, she said.

Sicely was concerned about the dog, Corona, or Chi Chi as she's called, relegated to the backyard.

"Whenever we leave, she is not going to be an outside dog," the 10-year-old said.

Shannon Jones helps keep the house in order. Deanglo plays football in nearby Westchester Community Park. The family tries to be quiet and respectful. It's all familiar and homelike, except for the fact that this is not their home -- and they know the accommodations can't last long.

Homeless students

Area school districts are reporting increases year over year in the number of homeless students. Their definition of "homeless" is derived from the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

Charleston County

--2010-11 school year: 540

--2009-10 school year: 697

--2008-09 school year: 685

--2007-08 school year: 485

The numbers are reported to the district by area shelters, and the 540 figure for the 2010-11 school year is not accurate because one shelter did not provide information, district officials said.

Children living in shelters or motels, or doubled up in other peoples' homes, were 393 last year; 147 students in the county were determined to be inadequately housed and at risk because they faced eviction or disconnection of utilities, according to district officials.

Sonya Jones, team associate in the district's Department of Federal Programs, said Charleston County schools accommodate dozens of children living temporarily in area motels, runaways and itinerant youth, who have no legally recognized parents or guardians.

As of last week, the district registered for the 2011-12 school year:

--11 students in shelters

--33 doubled-up

--24 in motels

--15 in substandard housing

Dorchester District 2

Dorchester District 2, which includes Summerville, started the 2010-11 school year with 13 homeless students, but ended up recording 74, according to Mike Windham, district director of federal and state programs. Windham said the 27 homeless students already registered for the current school year suggests that the problem is getting worse.

Berkeley County

--2010-11 school year: 308 (homeless or transient)

--2009-10 school year: 287

--2008-09 school year: 259

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