Homeless in Aiken County

STAFF PHOTO BY AMY BANTON Purray Williams-Jones smiles at her daughter, Raygenia, in their room at the Aiken Salvation Army shelter. Despite their difficult situation, Williams-Jones said her children have given her hope and strength.

Purray Williams-Jones and her four children don't have a place to call home.

After losing her job and falling behind on rent, Williams-Jones and her family found themselves living in her vehicle, changing clothes in the bathrooms of fast food restaurants and struggling to obtain just the basic necessities to live a healthy, normal life.

Williams-Jones and her children are some of the faces among the growing population of homeless people in South Carolina.

According to the South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless, 6,035 people were found living in shelters or the streets during a one-day “point in time count” held across the state on Jan. 24. The previous total of homeless individuals in the state from the one-day count conducted in 2011 was 4,701.

Aiken County is not immune to the problem as shelters across the area have seen an influx in people needing their services.

During a one-day homeless count on Jan. 26, 2012, the Coalition found 19 people in emergency shelters and five in transitional housing. This count did not include the “unsheltered,” meaning those who are living on the streets, in their vehicles or other outdoor places.

In 2013, the survey was held again at about the same time. A total of 29 people were found in emergency shelters, 14 in transitional housing and 13 were completely without shelter.

Out of the 56 people counted as homeless in Aiken County in that survey, 17 of them were children.

Aiken Salvation Army Maj. Angela Repass' phone seems to endlessly ring as more and more people are calling out for help.

Repass said the nonprofit's shelter, which houses up to 32 people at a time, saw a 70 percent increase of people staying the night during the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Repass said the need has steadily increased over the years.

There are variety of reasons why people are finding themselves in such a dire situation, Repass said. Mental illness, loss of job, family emergencies or abuse within a household can all contribute to someone losing the roof over their head.

Repass said anyone could find themselves homeless. Over the years, Repass has seen dedicated employees who gave years to a company be laid off and lose everything in a matter of months.

“It can land you in a homeless shelter in a heartbeat,” Repass said.

Mt. Salem Outreach Mission in Gloverville has experienced an “up and down trend” in the amount of people seeking their services, said Mission Supervisor Brother Louis Key. The mission runs a homeless shelter for men, and Key himself was homeless at one point after losing his job. After spending some time at the shelter, Key was asked to get involved and help with the mission.

Key said the shelter has seen as many as 200 to 300 men come through in a month. This year, it has have been housing more than 100 each month.

“Mostly, I hear right now that it's job situations,” Key said. “That's the biggest thing. They can't find work, the work that they want to find.”

Another factor in homelessness is domestic abuse. In the 2013 one-day count, the Homelessness Coalition reported 10 adults and six children who said they've experienced domestic violence out of the 56 people counted in Aiken County.

The Cumbee Center, which serves Aiken and several surrounding counties, had 131 shelter clients in 2011 and 166 in 2012. Almost half of those clients for both years were children and teenagers up to the age of 17.

Cumbee Center Case Manager and Crisis Counselor Barbara Sanders said that, unfortunately for many women and some men, the violence in a household overshadows everything else and leaving home feels like the only option.

“They make a choice, 'I'd rather leave than stay in this situation,'” Sanders said. “It's almost an 'anything is better than what I'm going through now' situation.”

And it's a problem that's not improving. Sanders said that from January to September in 2012, Aiken County alone reported 1,264 domestic violence complaints and 271 of those resulted in arrest.

Once someone is homeless, it can be hard for them to get back on their feet. Finding jobs in this economic climate can be difficult and even harder for those who have a criminal background, Repass said.

Considering the cost of security deposits that have to be put down when renting a home, Repass said it's difficult for someone to start over when they have been without an income for weeks to months at a time.

Repass said that nonprofits like the Salvation Army try to do what they can to help these people with the resources they have.

Through the federal Emergency Solutions grants, the Salvation Army was able to help 12 households re-establish stability last year.

Williams-Jones' eyes well up with tears when she tells her story. Her 16-year-old daughter, Raygenia, looks at her with a smile despite her own sadness of the situation and tells her mother not to cry.

“They understand that mama is down, mama doesn't have a job right now but mama is trying,” Williams-Jones said. “But, it just breaks my heart that I have to struggle through this with my children, and I'm doing it by myself.”

Williams-Jones said her four children, ages 12 through 16, have kept her strong though the ordeal.

Williams-Jones was one of several people who lost their job at a business in Trenton, but were told they may be called back to work in August, she said. Shortly after, they were evicted from their rental home and are currently staying at the Salvation Army shelter.

Williams-Jones has been trying to get back on her feet. She said that sometimes she feels belittled or judged because she's homeless, which hurts her even more.

Saquita Brown, her husband who is disabled and her five children have been in and out of the Salvation Army shelter. Income has been limited for the family and they have struggled to get by.

“It's hard to look at your children, and you know what they need but you can't even provide the basic necessities,” Brown said.

When trying to find work, Brown said she's been “blown off” when trying to explain her situation.

Raygenia said she feels they're going through this struggle for a reason, and with time, everything will be OK. She said that the experience has made her realize that maybe one day she can do something to help others in the same situation.

“I feel like more needs to be done,” Raygenia said. “I feel like there's not enough help going around like there should be. It just makes me feel bad to see people in these types of predicaments and us in this predicament. But, if you help others, it will help you, and that's a blessing. You just have to pray on it.”

Amy Banton is the city beat reporter and has been with the Aiken Standard since May 2010. She is a native of Rustburg, Va., and a graduate of Randolph Macon Woman's College.