Where do South Carolina’s approximately 12,000 school-age children live if their parents cannot afford rising monthly rental costs or home mortgages? The answer is: wherever they can. This often includes old RVs, cars, motels, campgrounds, trailer parks, state parks, public spaces, abandoned or substandard buildings or shared space with friends or other families.
The stereotypical back-to-school commercial showing freshly-scrubbed children sporting new backpacks, lunchboxes and school clothes, skipping down the walkway while happy parents wave from lovely homes with well-manicured lawns, has nothing to do with their reality or return-to-school experience.
If they make it to school at all, homeless students may find their families in another temporary location when it’s time to go home.
Much of the country seems to be slowly rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic, but America’s low-income children are the exception. They are still suffering, and their numbers are growing as their families struggle to free themselves from the grip of homelessness. Once permanent housing is lost, regaining it is extremely difficult, especially without subsidized options, which often have wait lists that extend for years.
The government has tried to support children who lack permanent residences with federal laws such as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which guarantees the right of homeless children to public education. In 2020-2021, approximately 12,000 South Carolina youngsters qualified for assistance.
Generous and compassionate help for these at-risk students also is coming in from the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations are making significant contributions on behalf of South Carolina’s homeless children.
Katrina Carpenter, the 2022 Jefferson Award winner and founder of the nonprofit organization Jean’s Angels, learned from her mother, Bobby Jean, that it is always more blessed to give than to receive, and she is intentional about passing this truth on to her children. A practical woman, she knows the needs of the homeless in the greater Charleston area, and she has special heart for the children of these families.
Carpenter explained, “With only one actual shelter and a few houses available, family options are limited here. Today, the rent for an average two-bedroom apartment in this area is more than $2,000 a month plus utilities – too high for low-income working families. Instead, they will crowd into a long-term motel room, which is more affordable but will never allow them to save up for their own place.”
She continued, “In motels, cooking is extremely limited and privacy nonexistent. There will be no backyard to play in or quiet place to study or even a bedroom, but at least everyone is safe and indoors. If they can’t afford a motel room, they may have to impose on family or friends for as long as the good will lasts.”
Jean’s Angels has seen the number of homeless school-age children grow tremendously post-pandemic, with more than 300 students in the tri-county area alone this past year.
“I get a list of homeless children from the school district for which we prepare care boxes with clothing, personal hygiene items and food. Since most of these children depend on school meals, we send home special grocery boxes over spring break and other holidays,” Carpenter said. “Furthermore, while many of these children are smart and capable, they have poor attendance. They are bullied for their poor hygiene, and so they don’t want to come to school.”
She and her family have created a practical response to those needs through Jean’s Angels. Portable trailers containing washers and dryers, showers and haircut services pull into scheduled locations in the tri-county area regularly. New, clean clothes and shoes are available there as well. These welcome services are all offered freely and without judgment.
When asked what she would like HealthLinks readers to know, Carpenter simply responded, “Remember that being homeless could happen to you at any time. Losing a job or a loved one who was the family provider could throw you into this same kind of predicament. Have some compassion.”
If you would like to know more, to volunteer or to donate to Jean’s Angels, email [email protected] or call 843-499-0084. Another set of hands and a compassionate heart are always welcome.
By Janet E. Perrigo