Facing Homelessness

Hundreds of youth experience homelessness in Columbia, but Palmetto Place is here to change that.

by Sydney Bonaparte / Garnet & Black

Columbia, South Carolina is well-known for many reasons. It is home to the University of South Carolina, Soda City, a rich culture, and unfortunately, a large homeless population. In an article published by News 19 in Sept. 2022, Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann stated that at any given time there are about 250 completely unsheltered people in Columbia.

A significant number of these people are young adults, but one organization is trying to change that. Palmetto Place is a shelter that houses young adults and children who have faced abandonment, abuse, neglect or homelessness. The shelter started in 1977 as a group home for youth in foster care. In 2012, an intern fulfilling their shift hours at the group home and a local high school found that teens were coming to school guidance counselors. The teens did not feel safe at home or were sleeping on friends’ couches. The intern brought this information to Palmetto Place, and the shelter quickly got to work. Through a federal grant, Palmetto Place was able to set aside four beds that would specifically house “unaccompanied youth” or youth experiencing homelessness without a guardian. Today, Palmetto Place continues to provide housing and services through this program, while also requiring teens to work on independent living skills, earn a diploma or GED or find a stable job.

According to Courtney Tidwell, the Community Outreach Coordinator for Palmetto Place, twenty more beds were opened in 2016 at a second campus in Columbia. From 2016 to 2018, Palmetto Place developed into an emergency shelter where youth experiencing homelessness could eat, sleep and seek safe shelter. However, the organization realized that they were missing a critical programming component to support these homeless youth: rehabilitation. Therefore, in more recent years, the shelter has been developing a supportive program that helps children and young adults find their way to independence. The organization hopes to roll out a full program in 2023 on top of the requirements young adults already have to fulfill, which include putting in 35 hours of productivity a week and saving 60% of their monthly income, which is then returned to the resident if they are in the first year of the program.

“Next year we are working with a lot of different community partners to be sure that youth are getting all of the necessary things they need," Tidwell said. "Mental health, physical health, sexual health.”

Palmetto Place was the first group home in South Carolina to have a program for unaccompanied youth, and they continue to be trailblazers for shelters in South Carolina. Unlike other local shelters such as Transitions and Mercy, which are more likely to house only adults and young men respectively, Palmetto Place serves anyone over the age of sixteen, including young women.

Tidwell said the individuals most susceptible to youth homelessness are people aging out of foster care with their support falling through, children of families who experience homelessness and people who got their first jobs during the pandemic. It was really difficult for newly independent adults to pay for their rent and groceries when their workplaces shut down. Additionally, one of the most prominent causes of homelessness is people with mental health issues not getting the help they need.

“We first need to destigmatize mental health because that is what we see that leads into a lot of issues of homelessness, people unable to hold down jobs due to their mental capabilities,” Tidwell said.  “For us to all be able to talk about that and what that means for our society . . . could end a lot of homelessness, if we could take mental health more seriously.” In fact, according to the National Homelessness Fact Sheet,  20% to 25% of the national homeless population has some kind of severe mental illness such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder. Compared to the 6% of non-homeless people who have a severe mental illness, it is not hard to believe that mental illness can have serious impacts on employability and housing status. Mental illness can make it more difficult for homeless youth to cope with homelessness, especially if they are victims of abuse and cannot afford the help they need.

Tidwell explains that youth who experience homelessness are often misunderstood. She said that many people believe, “that people that are experiencing homelessness don’t have a drive or a want for more.” She said this is simply not the case. Many people also have the misconception that homeless people are drug addicts. Very few of Palmetto Place's residents are juvenile delinquents or those with substance abuse issues.

Clayton Jimison, the service chair for the UofSC Pre-Health Honor Society AED, agrees with Tidwell. Jimison and other AED members have been volunteering at Palmetto Place for the past few years. Jimison’s experiences in working with the shelter have made him more aware of the misconceptions people have about homeless individuals. 

“I think it's an issue in the way that we frame what homelessness is and who homeless people are,” Jimison said.  “A lot of people, when they think about homelessness or homeless people, think about ‘drug addicts’ and people who ‘don't wanna put in the work’ to get a job. That just isn't the case though.”

In Tidwell’s experience, most of the youth at Palmetto Place are homeless due to their families being homeless or lack of employment because of the pandemic, not because they abuse drugs.

“It's not that people don't want to do the work or, ya know, want things to be handed to them,” Tidwell said. “It's that everyone needs equitable practices so that they can also strive for independence.”

Jimison believes that working with Palmetto Place has really changed his perspective on what homelessness is and who homeless people are. Through volunteering, he realized that homelessness can affect anyone and is difficult to escape because of how hard it is for homeless people to get a job. Many times, homeless people do not have the clothes to look “professional” in job interviews. Not to mention, holding a job involves having transportation, clean clothes, a mailing address and an ID for applications.

“I mean, think about any time you've ever filled out a job application; the number one thing that they ask is what is your address,” Jimison said. “Usually it's at the top of the application, and if you can't even make it past that, what are you gonna do?”

Jimison explains that many shelters in the area offer programs to help residents obtain driver’s licenses and government IDs. “Which at first made no sense to me,” Jimison said. “But then I realized that that's another thing you have to put on a lot of job applications, and if you don't have one and you don't have a house or a car there's no way to really get one.”

With the thousands of job applicants who don’t experience homelessness having access to clean clothes, IDs, transportation and more, it is instrumental for homeless youth to have the same. This would begin to put homeless people on the same playing field as people with homes and give them a better shot at getting a job without judgment and mistrust from employers.

Even then, according to Kylyssa Shay in her "Why Don't Homeless People Just Get Jobs," a third of all homeless people in the nation are employed, but still cannot afford housing. That’s why Palmetto Place also includes a Transitional Housing Program. Samantha’s House in Columbia has seven beds for youth aged 18-21 that have shown readiness for independence but would still like some support. The purpose of this program is to assist youth with their transition into true independence. The program provides transportation to and from work, comprehensive medical and mental health care, meals and other basic necessities.

Jimison has worked closely with Palmetto Place. His organization has been assisting them for the past five years, and he said it has been an amazing experience. AED volunteers have helped organize several events such as their annual Palmetto Place Hero Hustle 5K, virtual game nights for the younger kids and cooking nights where a service chair and members from AED cook a large meal for the residents at Palmetto Place.

“I think that's why I feel so passionately about Palmetto Place... because they're not just shelters where people can live. They really focus on transitioning people back into getting jobs and becoming self-sustainable,” Jimison said.

As Jimison reflected on his experience with Palmetto Place, he said, “It's very clear that homelessness is a big topic in Columbia. Every single time I've been in one of these shelters they say how full they are, they don't have room for the people that they need to serve.”

Tidwell knows this fact all too well. "Our services are definitely going to be necessary for the future and we hope to be able to expand with the help of the community,” she said.

Palmetto Place’s slogan is “Homes Built on Hope,” and the organization tries to live up to this every day. “We're just trying to make [our shelter] as comfy and home-like as possible while still being able to do the programming and still getting the numbers and the successes that we want,” Tidwell said.

“When we were a foster care organization we heard from a lot of the youth…that living here felt more like living at a house or a home than any other place they had lived in through the foster care system,” Tidwell said.

It is exciting to see Palmetto Place’s drive for improvement and optimal care for its residents. Tidwell is looking forward to what the future holds for Palmetto Place. " I only see us getting bigger and better from here." 

Courtney Tidwell’s email address is Courtney@palmettoplace.org. She invites individuals, groups, and clubs to email her about volunteering, donating, or posting on social media to show advocacy.