Vanity Reid Deterville lugs a heavy tan suitcase behind her as she checks out of the $30-a-night Not-So-Hostel in downtown Charleston. It’s an hour until she has to be at rehearsal, and Deterville needs to drop off her belongings at the North Central home where she’ll be staying for a while. She hasn’t eaten yet today, but has a small bag of Chinese takeout stuffed in her handbag for dinner. Arriving at the Main Library on Calhoun Street, Deterville greets her fellow actors in between bites of greasy noodles. Her smile shines on every member of the cast who walks through the door. Together they’ll bring Deterville’s play, Sugar in the Grits, to life. The story follows the 23-year-old as she navigates life in Charleston as a trans woman of color. Born into a deeply Christian family entrenched in the Gullah Geechee community, Deterville was rejected by her father and grandfather, which led to her being forced to drop out of the College of Charleston in 2015 while she struggled to find a safe place to stay. While the young poet’s story will be the one to grace the stage, Deterville’s struggles closely mirror those of many other students who walk what has been voted America’s most beautiful college campus, but find themselves without food or shelter.
“I had a period of time that people dub ‘couchsurfing.’ It was after I was put out of the house for finally openly expressing myself at home. I was made to leave. At the time, I was working at Chipotle, but then lost my job as I was homeless,” Deterville says. “I didn’t know what to do. I had already stopped going to school at CofC because I had to pay bills and be able to live somewhere.”
Set to return to CofC in January and earn a degree in political science, Deterville spent the past two years working in the food and bev industry along King Street before getting a job as a makeup artist. During that time, she kept a careful eye on other people her age who battled with homelessness. This has helped Deterville serve as part of We Are Family’s street team, which tracks and offers outreach to the city’s homeless LGBTQ youth. It also helped her make the connections she needed to keep a roof over her head.
“You’ve got to get to know somebody who is either nice enough to let you crash at theirs for a while or pay attention to the people who are on the street during the day and talk to them about where they go at night,” says Deterville. “What’s a good place to hang out and chill, lay your head? Do you know any place where I could take a shower and get myself together for the next day so I can be ready for work? It was not a very conventional practice, but it was effective when it needed to be. I know how to navigate through it because I’ve had to navigate through it.”
Starved for knowledge
As the force behind We Are Family, Melissa Moore has seen cases like Deterville’s before. A young person reaches the age where they finally muster the courage and strength to express their true sexual orientation to their family, only to be abandoned. They struggle to keep afloat, stay in school, but ultimately get pulled under. For years, Moore has worked to catch kids when they fall, but as with all things, money stands in the way.
“Ever since I started with We Are Family in 2010, we would get calls all the time from kids who were kicked out of their homes because their parents rejected them when they came out of the closet. When I would call around to all the service providers around here and try to find resources for them, there were no resources. When you have a kid who is under the age of 18, they get funneled into foster care or DSS or that service system. That’s not a great place necessarily for them to go,” says Moore.
Those old enough to get a bed in a shelter would call Moore in the middle of the night crying because they had been harassed and threatened by older residents. Moore’s frustration grew as she repeatedly found herself unable to help these kids. She looked into how other cities address youth homelessness and began to work on a plan to create a youth shelter and drop-in center in Charleston. But then Moore hit another obstacle.
“I started to try to make appeals and write grants and get funding to address the issue, but nobody wants to believe that it’s real. I could tell them I’m logging all these calls that I’m getting. Still people don’t necessarily believe it, because when you walk around outside it’s just not as obvious,” says Moore. “When you have folks who have been chronically homeless for a really long time, it’s obvious. They stand apart from folks who are housed. Well, with youth, they tend to blend a lot easier. So it’s easy to sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s not real.”
Looking for a way to gather hard evidence of the true scope of Charleston’s homeless youth population, Moore reached out to the College of Charleston’s Riley Center for Livable Communities last December. Having participated in previous point-in-time counts to tally the local homeless population, Moore found a partner in the Center’s director of research and planning, Bob Kahle. As the first part of an extensive look at youth homelessness and food insecurity, deemed the Charleston YOUth Count, the Riley Center focused on students at the College of Charleston. What Kahle found was shocking.
Launching a campus-wide survey, Kahle’s team heard back from 2,184 of the more than 11,000 students at the college. Demographically, respondents mirrored the overall student body, so Kahle was able to confidently generalize survey answers to the entire campus. First off, Kahle found that LGBTQ students represent 18 percent of students at the College of Charleston.
“I knew that we had a significant LGBTQ population, but I was concerned that students would be reluctant to self identify. If anything, we’ve probably underestimated,” says Kahle. “I had it pegged at around 10-12 percent, but then I saw 18 percent … Interestingly, the closer you are to the student population, the less surprised you are.”
Getting into the real purpose of the 70-question survey, the Center was also able to estimate the number of CofC students who struggle with housing and food insecurity. According to their findings, approximately 3,375 students at the college are food insecure. This means that on any given day, 30 percent of the student population have difficulty finding an adequate meal. This includes more than 8 percent of the student body that report going an entire day without eating due to a lack of money. As executive vice president for Student Affairs at the College of Charleston, Alicia Caudill is aware that food insecurity isn’t a new phenomenon on college campuses across the country.
“There isn’t a lot of data or a consistent way of collecting data around the country, so it’s hard to have an idea of what things really look like. We work with students in all different ways, whether it’s through counseling or student health or just students who are working on campus, and we hear anecdotally often their situations,” says Caudill. “They may come to us for another reason, but when working with them we become aware of a financial situation that’s making things more difficult for them. We had an awareness that students often come up with issues that may be difficult to them, but the data to back that up is always very helpful because it helps you get your mind around the scope, where you may find these students, and what kind of challenges we need to resolve.”
Working off of the study findings, Caudill found that there were a number of places on campus that were making efforts to address food insecurity, and the college has organized a task force to address food and housing insecurity on campus. Caudill’s office has now developed a guide for staff and faculty that lists resources for students who struggle with finding a meal. This includes a student-operated food pantry and a project by CofC’s Alumni Association that allows students and alumni to donate funds to student meal cards.
The price of education
While the number of students at CofC who struggle to find food is staggering, the estimated 30 percent facing housing insecurity wrestle with an even greater set of threats.
Most common among this group are students pressured by rising rents or who simply don’t have enough money to pay rent. Although the general assumption for many people is that the younger generation lacks the necessary work ethic to support themselves, Kahle’s findings show the opposite. According to Kahle, an increased risk of housing and food insecurity was closely linked to students who reported receiving need-based loans and having a full-time job in addition to their school work.
“Look at the expenses they have beyond tuition — which is substantial — the price of some of these textbooks, transportation to and from the peninsula, parking, then finding somewhere to buy lunch,” says Kahle. “It seems counterintuitive, but what we’ve seen is that if they have full-time employment and they’ve got student loans for room and board, it tells us that they’re likely not getting familial support. It’s not only LGBTQ kids who don’t get familial support, but LGBTQ kids are less likely to get the same level of familial support because of their parents reacting negatively when the young person comes out and reveals what their sexual orientation is.”
Another strong indicator of housing insecurity was students who identify as LGBTQ. In many cases, such as with Vanity Deterville, life on the streets poses a serious threat for these young students.
“Being coerced with sex or drugs is definitely a problem to be wary of because there are a lot of people who are preyed on. I’ve spoken out about it before as someone who was preyed on and exploited. It’s hard to break away from something that appeals so much, especially a home with a refrigerator, a phone, and having access to all that,” says Deterville. “But you are coerced and pressured forcefully to partake in drugs and participate in sex. Some captors say, ‘This is your only choice.’ People are very manipulative in continuing to push, push, push, and offer things in front of you. If you are not used to standing against that kind of pressure, it’s easy to give into. The younger you are, the more you should be worried about that type of thing.”
She adds, “Many fear that they cannot go back to their blood families. They can’t go back and express themselves as freely as they want to, so they stay where there are. But in staying where they are, there are a lot of character compromises that happen.”
According to the Riley Center’s survey, an estimated 754 students at the College of Charleston have left where they are sleeping because they felt unsafe. Facing a lack of food and the uncertainty of where they’ll spend the night, these students soon find their grades slipping if they can even manage to stay enrolled. Between 8-13 percent of students who reported some form of food or housing insecurity also reported under-performing in class.
“It’s not surprising that when students are concerned with where they are going to live, feel unsafe, get their next meal, that begins to override the other kinds of well-being factors in their life, including academic performance. I think on college campuses, forever, we’ve been working with students on some of these issues,” says Caudill. “To me it is a continued effort now with new information around aspects of a student’s well-being that we continue to figure out how to address and help these students, just like we would help any other student who is having a well-being concern around safety or whatever it might be.”
In light of the Riley Center’s findings at CofC, Caudill says the study provides better guidance for how financial and personnel resources are allocated at the college. This entirely new layer of knowledge can help guide programming for students, such as an increase in financial workshops for students on campus.
“It informs us in a lot of ways about how to use our time because we have the data. We don’t have to guess,” says Caudill.
In September, We Are Family was awarded a $3,000 grant from the Campaign for Southern Equality to assist with the expanded YOUth Count that will examine youth homelessness throughout the city. With an expected completion date of next January, the effort will inform how resources for homeless youth are developed across the Charleston area. While the surveys and studies may seem like just another batch of numbers to be filed away, they are a vital step in reaching a vulnerable population before it’s too late.
“No one can really argue with data. We’re not exaggerating. Nobody can come back and say you’re talking in falsehoods,” says Moore on the importance of this research. “The South is very underfunded for everything, but then when you layer on top of it LGBTQ work, LGBTQ organizations in the South are completely underfunded … When you’re trying to make a case to big funders for why we need the money here and they shouldn’t just go to New York and keep funding things in all these big cities, we need to have this data to be able to make a case for why we need this support here.”
For Kahle, the process of studying the local homeless youth population has been eye-opening, especially as it concerns the LGBTQ community. During a recent conference, he recalls talking about his work and trying to better understand this vulnerable portion of the population only to be shut down by his colleagues.
“Really for the first time in my life, almost 60 years, I got a little bit of a sense of what it’s like for someone to think that there’s something wrong with you because of who you love,” he says. “I frankly didn’t fully get it. But I get it now.”
All across Charleston tonight, there are kids, students, employees who will finish class or end their shift and find themselves with nowhere to go. They’ll sleep on a friend’s couch, hide out on rooftops, or crouch down in a parking garage to grab what sleep they can. Then, they’ll wake up the next day to do it all again. These are kids who hide in plain sight every day. They go unnoticed because in many cases no one wants to notice them. As for Vanity Deterville, she’s done hiding.
“I was put out of my home while I was enrolled in the spring of 2015. It was way too much compounded on top of each other for me to tackle at one time,” she says. “But now that I have stood firm in my identity for a while and made a name for myself, it has been beneficial. Now I can transition back into school.”
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