The state of homelessness in Rock Hill, SC

Emmanuel Williams on Dec. 7, 2021 at Pathways Community Center in Rock Hill, S.C. (photo: Christian Smith).

“The reason I got down here is because me and her kind of had a split up. I’m talking to you now because, now I’m coming from my heart, because its hurting me to have to give up everything I had built to get down here. I got down here because I got stressed out. I didn’t want to be around, but I still think about her. But I just couldn’t be around her. So when I got down here, I had nowhere to go.”

Emmanuel Williams came to Rock Hill with nothing, leaving his old life in Anderson, S.C. behind. He, like many in Rock Hill, had to sleep in the woods with strangers because he had nowhere else to go. 

“You don’t want to be out there in the streets. You know, because its dangerous out there,” Williams said. “The time when I got here, and I had sleep in the woods with a friend that I didn’t know. But he looked out for me, and I respect him. I still respect him today.”

Many people just like Williams live in Rock Hill, finding shelter where they can. Some stay in the woods, like Williams; others sleep under highway overpasses; while still others stay with relatives, having no place of their own. In 2020, York County was ranked number eight on the top 10 counties with the highest Point in Time (PIT) count responses, a measure used to track people who are homeless, according to the 2020 South Carolina State of Homelessness Report. 

The report, created by the South Carolina Interagency Council on Homelessness, says in York County 162 people experienced homelessnes in March of 2020, of which 36% were unsheltered, meaning they “were residing in places not suitable for human habitation” while 64% were sheltered, meaning they “were residing in emergency or transitional housing.”

People may become homeless for a number of different reasons, but according to the study “Using K-Means Cluster Analysis and Decision Trees to Highlight Significant Factors Leading to Homelessness,” people often do not become homeless due to a single hardship. Often, several different hardships, such as medical bills, food instability, housing instability, overdue utility bills and disabilities combine to make it difficult to stay housed. According to the most recent census, 12.6% of people in Rock Hill were in poverty and 11.2% did not have health insurance at the time of the census. 

In York County, 24% of the population lived in a household that spent at least half of their income on rent and utilities, or had no income at all, according to the 2013-2017 American Community Survey. 

The average wage in York County was $12.54, which is $7.23 short of what the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) calls the housing wage, the amount of money per hour a person would need to make to spend less than 30% of their income renting a two bedroom apartment at fair market rent, according to the NLIHC Out of Reach Report in 2019. 

In 2016, South Carolina had the highest number of evictions in the country, according to the South Carolina Housing Needs Assessment by SC Housing. While data was not available for York County, “for every 1,000 renter households statewide, 187 received a notice and 89 were forcibly removed. These figures are dramatically higher than any other state in the country; Delaware and Virginia, the states with the next highest rate, had 51 evictions per 1,000 renters.”

South Carolina Housing Needs Assessment also highlights an affordable housing shortage happening in South Carolina. In York County, 15,395 renters are eligible for housing assistance but do not live in an assisted unit. York County is also in high-demand for new construction, having a real estate market “where affordability was likely to be a particularly serious challenge going forward,” according to the assessment. 

The hardships people who become homeless face are often the result of structural barriers, not a person’s individual choices, according to Sara Brallier, professor of sociology at Costal Carolina University. Brallier, whose research focuses on homelessness in the Myrtle Beach area, said often times people who are homeless were not afforded the same opportunities as other people.

“One of the biggest problems is that folks think that it’s because they have made bad choices. You know, something that someone said about a kid that was successful is, you know, ‘Well, he made good choices.’ And someone retorted, ‘Well, he had good choices to make.’ And so, you know, I think about that all the time. Lots of these folks didn’t even have good choices to make, right?”

Williams became homeless because his wife was financially taking advantage of him, he said. After they split up, he had to leave everything behind and move away. But before he was homeless, Williams was a supervisor at a factory in Anderson. 

“I’m going through this course, and this man that worked there was a supervisor named Roger, kind of an older guy. He said ‘I need a good man that’s going to work every day and don’t be out.’ I said, ‘Yes sir, I’m your man.’ So he put me on this machine with this lady named Cindy. She’s training me with the machine,” he said. “So once I got used to it I could start it up myself. And, you know, I’m doing really good.”

Williams almost got fired over a background check but was allowed to keep working after his supervisor’s boss chose to ignore it. Over time, he started learning more machines.

“So this man, my supervisor … he was so cool, so understanding. He believed in second chances,” he said. “So he gave me a second chance. But when he started training me on all these machines, man, I’m learning them.”

Eventually, Williams rose to be his supervisor’s lead man and, eventually, became a supervisor himself. 

“See, this how life feels sometimes. Life moves so fast. And your mind, your mind ain’t ready for it, but you think you ready for it. But you’re not,” he said. “So I became a supervisor, and I met this beautiful woman on the job. Me and her got married, but she had kids, but I don’t care. I loved her. 

“And I think that she was wanting more out of me because I was in the [National] Guard and I was a supervisor. I think she was thinking that she can get anything now she wants because she know I love her.”

Black people, like Williams, are more likely than white people to be homeless in South Carolina, according to the 2020 South Carolina State of Homelessness report. In a statewide PIT count, 53% of homeless people were Black, despite making up only 27% of the population, according to the census.

In South Carolina, the number of people experiencing homeless may be growing. According to an article by WIS News in Columbia, S.C. titled “SC homeless shelter seeing ‘tsunami’ of people in need after eviction moratorium ends,” since the end of the eviction moratorium, where landlords were barred from evicting renters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations like Homeless No More are at capacity. 

“Normally we will see 10 phone calls a day from families who are at risk of homelessness. In the past 10 days, we are now at 20 to 30 phone calls each day from families who have received notice of evictions and will be homeless in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Homeless No More CEO Lila Anna Sauls said, according to the article.

According to a report by STOUT prepared for the National Council of State Housing Agencies in 2020, “Analysis of Current and Expected Rental Shortfall and Potential Evictions in the U.S.,” an estimated 150,000 – 210,000 renters were unable to pay rent with a rent shortfall of an estimated $329,000,000 – $429,000,000 in January 2021, when the eviction moratorium was originally going to end. 

While there is no recent data for homeless adults in 2021 in Rock Hill, data on the number of homeless children in Rock Hill public schools was obtained through open records requests. During the 2018-2019 school year, 101 children in Rock Hill public schools experienced homelessness. During the 2020-2021 school year, that number rose to 162 children, a rise of around 60%. 

College students also experience homelessness but are often overlooked, according to the article “College Student Homelessness: A Hidden Epidemic” by Chad Klitzman. 

“To many, the term ‘homeless college student’ sounds like a contradiction,” the article says. “However, in 2013, nearly 60,000 applicants for federal financial aid under the age of twenty-one self-identified as homeless; given that this figure does not encompass students over the age of twenty-one, the number likely eclipses 100,000.”

Josie Pope, a senior mass communication and English dual major at Winthrop University, became homeless senior year of high school after her mother kicked her out of the house. 

“Like any queer person, you know, there’s a time in your life when your family becomes more and more suspicious of you as you develop as a person,” she said. “And for me, you know, that turned out into a large heated argument, which I think the pandemic kind of exasperated in a way. And my mother just simply literally just kicked me out in the middle of the night because of the fact that I was too queer, and she had accused me of being trans.”

According to “LGBT People and Housing Affordability, Discrimination and Homelessness,” an article by the UCLA School of Law, Williams Institute, family rejection is a major contributing factor to the high levels of LGBT youth experiencing homelessness. Between 20% and 45% of homeless youth identify as LGBT, which is two to four times more than the estimated percentage of all youth who identify as LGBT. 

Pope stayed with friends and family until eventually she was able to move in with her grandparents. However, she said they are only marginally more accepting than her mother. 

“My grandmother has a strong sense of family, and I guess that kind of overrides her feelings about trans people,” she said. “They let me live there because we’re family. Sometimes there can be a strain for them, with me being trans.”

People who identify as transgender such as Pope face economic hardship at a higher rate than people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. According to “LGBT People and Housing Affordability, Discrimination and Homelessness,” nearly half of LGBT adults own their homes, compared to 70% of non-LGBT adults. LGBT adults have 15% higher odds of being poor than non-LGBT adults after controlling for age, race, employment status, education, disability and other factors that affect risk of poverty. 

“This is all I can do financially. I don’t have a car. I don’t have really anything to my name. And with being homeless, I have not had the ability to actually have a job. Because I don’t have car, I have to walk places. And so that really is dependent on where I’m living, what my living situation is,” Pope said.

Pope now has a job at Starbucks and receives financial help from Winthrop. However, she said she still has a hard time feeling comfortable anywhere, even in her dorm. 

“Because the way I became homeless was a very violent and quick experience, I think, since then I’ve had trouble recognizing places as a living place,” she said. “At all points, I could probably pack up myself in 30 minutes and be out of that place … I don’t recognize it as like a living space or like a place that’s my own to, like, personalize or do that thing where people like decorate their places. 

“And so I don’t see it like that. I don’t see it as like a actual home or place that is safe. It’s just somewhere I go to bed and wake up and leave.”

Rock Hill has many nonprofits dedicated to helping the homeless population in its city. Pathways, a nonprofit itself, houses many of these organizations with the purpose of creating an intake and referral agency and single point of entry for those in crisis, poverty or who are homeless. 

It uses a continuum of care model to “outsource” help that people need to other nonprofits that specialize in meeting the specific need, such as transportation, clothing, housing, identification, food, financial help, education, employment and health. However, all associated nonprofits are housed on site, which “provides a multifunctional community center where agencies unite to accomplish one goal: to provide services for those in need at a single point of entry facility,” according to their flyer.

Williams is no longer homeless because of Pathways. He was able to find a house, get furniture and get back on his feet because of the nonprofit.

“This lady on the bus wanted to know where I was going. I said, ‘I don’t know where to go.’ She told me about Pathways. On the bus, she told me, ‘I’m going to show you where Pathways is,’” he said. “All the ladies in here, we talked, and I told them, I said, ‘Hey, I don’t know nobody. I don’t know where to go.’ And so I went to Bethel [Men’s Shelter], and they gave me a bed.

“But the people out there in the street, they are struggling. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to go. I mean, they don’t know if they are going to be around the next day, or if they are going to be living. They don’t got no clue.”

According to Brallier, nonprofits aren’t able to do enough on their own to combat homelessness. 

“They simply can’t meet the need. The two that I work with are both focused on food insecurity. So it’s a food pantry and then a community kitchen in Conway, which is technically the city that the university is is located, and both of them do a great job. But there, there’s only so much that nonprofits can really do,” she said.

Governments should be doing more to try to curb homelessness, according to Brallier. There are plans that are working in other places, she said, and more governments should consider using them.

“One of the things that is really working in other places that we do not do comprehensively here is the housing first model, where they have a supply of no cost or low cost housing, and they put someone in housing,” she said. “It’s hard to treat someone’s addiction when, you know, they go back to the streets. Whereas if they have a safe place to stay, then we start working on mental health, physical health, addiction, finding jobs [and] training.”

According to the Fiscal Year 2020 Year-End Strategic Plan Performance Report, Rock Hill met their goals to:

“Complete the full build out of Arcade by 6/30/2021.” The build out was completed in Fall 2019.

“Provide annual updates on the implementation of the Housing Development Corporation strategic plan.” According to the report, “The HDC continues to work around ‘Buy, Fix, Keep’ and provides an annual report in the Fall of every year.”

However many goals outlined in the report were not met. They include:

“Develop a comprehensive analysis of housing conditions, affordability, inventory, vacancy rates, occupancy trends, etc. in the neighborhoods surrounding Knowledge Park by 12/31/2019.”

“Attract mixed income housing units to Knowledge Park by permitting at least 75 new mixed income units by 6/30/2021.”

“Develop a mixed income housing incentive pilot program by 12/31/2019”

Brallier said that cities will pay for homelessness one way or the other, either through programs to combat it or through people who are homeless utilizing public services.

“You pay for it regardless of how you pay for it. You’re either going to pay for it by having these folks utilize public services, or you’re going to pay for it by sheltering them,” she said. “And eventually, it would cost less if we could get them sheltered and at least partially financially independent, you know, having some employment. Because it’s a lot easier to work when you have a place to go at night, have a place to store your stuff. You can sleep, you can shower. All of those are barriers to employment.”

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Christian Smith

My name is Christian Smith, and I am a student at Winthrop University pursuing a major in mass communication and minor in political science. I am passionate and knowledgeable about local news; accountable and transparent government; diversity, equity, and inclusion; public document gathering and in-depth research.

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