Bowls and bingo takes place in the rec room at Joseph Floyd Manor every Wednesday at noon. Residents of the 12-story public housing building trickle in, finding seats at long card tables. Volunteers serve soup — one week in February it was sweet potato chili — and Jae Smith, the building’s case intake specialist, spins the bingo cage.
You can use as many cards as you like, but the regulars often spread three cards in front of them, carefully placing the multi-colored chips on the “free” spaces.
Smith calls the numbers and letters: B5, N7, G21. About 10 residents huddle over their cards, quietly concentrating. After a few minutes someone yells, “Bingo!” and the others hurry Smith to start the next round.
The winners take home practical prizes. Off to the side, a table sits stacked with non-perishable goods and toiletries. Cake mix is a hot commodity, if, of course, you have eggs back in your kitchen. If something better catches your eye, you can trade.
The majority of JFM residents are elderly or disabled. The manor is just one of 399 affordable housing units managed by the Charleston County Housing and Redevelopment Authority’s Public Housing Department.
Ginean Mazeck, the family self sufficiency coordinator at JFM, says that most residents were once in the workforce. Circumstances change; these people suffered from injuries or layoffs. They have never returned to making a viable living. Mazeck credits a new book, Tales From The Manor, with helping show Charleston that there’s more than one way into poverty.
Tales From The Manor is a collaboration with Enough Pie, a local nonprofit which works with local residents and businesses on the upper peninsula to strengthen connections in the local community. The book is based on a podcast of the same name, which Enough Pie launched with nonprofit Ohm Radio in 2019. The series’ 30-minute episodes feature interviews with JFM residents, exploring stories from each person’s past. Tales From The Manor features the stories of nine residents and two employees, including Mazeck.
The book is an effort to put a face on the story of the people who live in the low-income public housing complex.
“As you pass down the highway at night, you may see the lights on in individual apartments at Joseph Floyd Manor,” the introduction reads. “Know that those lights are the residents shining bright, carrying the torch of their ancestors who would be proud of their offspring. They show us all what it means to be perfectly human.”
Resident Carolyn Jones, a frequent bingo winner, was a guest on the podcast last year. “I wasn’t going to do it,” she says, nodding her head defiantly. “I’m a kind of stand-offish person. I’m kind of private.” Talking in a measured voice, Jones seems anything but stand-offish, readily offering up details of her life.
Originally from Edgefield, Jones spent time in New York, and later back down south in Orangeburg. She eventually found herself in West Ashley, living with her son, a military engineer.
After living with her son for a bit, Jones wanted to branch out on her own, and she applied for an apartment at JFM. Currently there’s a year-long wait to get an apartment at the manor.
“We have a lot of working poor,” says Mazeck of the residents she works with in public housing. “Some people never reach the income level to score out of poverty. When you’re disabled, it’s even harder to do so.”
Just over 15 percent of Charleston County residents live in poverty. Of almost 376,000 people, the majority (about 195,000) are employed. African-American residents are almost three times more likely to live in poverty than white residents, according to 2017 census data.
Mazeck appreciates the work that the Tales From The Manor book and podcast are doing to shine a light on poverty in the area.
While Carolyn Jones doesn’t go out often, she does enjoy spending time in her apartment and reading. She reads and writes a lot; she likes writing down quotes. Right now, she’s reading Queen Sugar, a novel by Natalie Baszile about a young mother who’s recently been widowed.
Jones lives in one of the larger apartments in the building — she’s got a bedroom, bathroom, sitting area, and kitchen. Boxes are stacked around the space; Jones says she’s got to stop collecting things at her age.
Like Jones, Joan Carter mainly keeps to herself. Just a few days before the Super Bowl, she says she’s perfectly happy hosting a party for one in her apartment. “I have some chips and dip,” she shrugs.
Carter was born in North Carolina and moved to New Jersey at age 16, where she has spent most of her life. After her daughter and son-in-law moved south, Carter followed, somewhat begrudgingly. “It’s all backwards to me,” she says of Charleston. “Some of these people down here got a different way of thinking.”
Needless to say, Curtis Thompson, who grew up on Charleston’s Eastside, disagrees with Carter’s perspective. Sitting next to her on a bench in one of the manor’s front offices, Thompson points out that while the South may seem foreign to some, his time up North had him feeling just as out of place.
“I lived in New York, but it was a little bit too fast for me,” he says. “In New York, people would think you were crazy for saying, ‘How you doing?’ ” After time in the military and abroad, and later, getting into the ministry, Thompson is happy to be back home, where, as he says, people say, “Hey, you” back.
Both Thompson and Carter disagree with the city’s designation as the No. 1 in the world, blaming overdevelopment and traffic for making the city less livable.
Erica Bryant, program coordinator of the county’s housing choice voucher program, what most people refer to as Section 8, says that lots of Charleston residents are finding the city to be less livable. “The rents in Charleston are so high, even when we give a family a voucher they still can’t find housing,” she says.
South Carolina is one of 19 states where the lowest earners make the federal minimum wage, according to a 2017 report by the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative. Minimum wage workers in South Carolina make up a larger portion of the hourly paid workforce than nationally. The report states: “Affordable housing for service workers, low-to-moderate income earners, seniors, veterans, and entry-level professionals simply does not exist.”
“The face of poverty is changing now,” says Mazeck. Growing up just outside of the Charleston area, Mazeck has seen firsthand the impact of gentrification. She talks about how the city was once majority black; according to census estimates, the African American population in Charleston County hovers around 27 percent. White residents make up about 70 percent of the population. “Everybody’s being pushed out,” Mazeck says.
As of 2017 the Charleston metro area population was growing at three times the rate of the U.S. population average. With more people come more homes, more hotels, more cars. The undeniable rise of development on the peninsula begs the question — what’s going to happen to the manor? According to Mazeck, nothing, for now. The building was purchased by Charleston County in 1979, operating as Joseph Floyd Manor since 1981. But the building is old, built around 1950, and in need of a lot of maintenance. Each apartment in the manor is slated to get new blinds, according to this year’s Public Housing Assessment plan.
The residents don’t necessarily mind the old building, but they admit to having to make adjustments to living in close quarters with others.
“You’ve gotta learn how to rub elbows with people,” says Thompson. “Everyone has different situations and different problems and you’ve got to know how to deal with people.”
The building has 156 units. Most of the apartments are single occupancy, but some have couples; one resident just had a baby. There are a lot of tales on each floor of the manor, spoken and unspoken histories.
Jones, like so many people, holds on to things that no longer serve her. There are some items she just doesn’t want to part with. Looking around her small apartment she takes in the boxes and piles of books: “This is my home right now.”
Carter carries around a healthy dose of caution when it comes to strangers. “You can’t get too friendly,” she warns.
Thompson says that at age 66, he’s found a certain kind of peace — the kind that comes along when you’re OK being alone. Despite life’s hardships, he’s grateful for what he has.
“You’ve got to value what you’ve got,” he says. “I hope people will value where they live, that they don’t have to experience what I’ve seen. It’s only by the grace of God that I’m here. I’ve still got a little health left. You just gotta be thankful, you know?”