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The faces of hunger, homelessness

Local families share their stories of survival

Posted: November 16, 2010 5:19 p.m.
Updated: November 17, 2010 5:00 a.m.
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The participants of the sleep-out pitched tents and cardboard boxes as shelter for the night.

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In the spring of 2010, John and Samantha Smith* found themselves in a though situation. Their landlord decided to sell the home they were living in and John still couldn’t find a steady job. At that time, they were living in Richland County.

Even though John has more than 15 years experience as a forklift operator, the experience didn’t equal a job that could support his family.

John, 36, and Samantha, 31, have seven children ranging from 17 years old to 18 months.

“It’s my responsibility as a man and as the head of this household to be a provider,” John said. “But that’s hard to do without a job.”

Not knowing where to turn, the couple swallowed their pride and asked for help.

“We went to a few different agencies in Richland County,” Samantha said. “But they weren’t able to help us. We didn’t meet their qualifications or they had just run out of money. We’re not people that like asking for help, but it hurts when you finally ask and nothing happens.”

During the summer months, the Smith’s children lived with family members. John and Samantha spent two months living out of their car.

“I lost so much sleep over it, worrying about where the children would go to school and how we were going to support them,” Samantha said. “Then we found Wateree Community Action.”

Samantha said she couldn’t give enough praise to the people at Wateree Community Action Inc., United Way of Kershaw County and New Day on Mill.

“They helped my family during a time when we needed it most,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, my family wouldn’t have a home.”

John agreed. “I’m lucky enough to have a good woman by my side. We made it through this,” he said. “We’ve come a long way in the past few months, but these programs saved our family and our marriage.”

The family now lives in Elgin with affordable rent. John has been able to work a few temporary jobs and is still looking for something permanent. But their situation has improved dramatically.

“We have a roof over our head, most of our children can walk to school,” Samantha said. “We may not have much, but our family is together.”

John said he was thankful to have his family together, too.

“We may not have much money, but our children know they are loved and that their parents would do anything for them,” John said.

The biggest reason John said he decided to come forward and talk about what he and his family have been through is because he wanted to put a face on the stimulus money.

“A lot of politicians were against it,” he said. “I want to stress the fact that without that money, my wife and I would still be on the streets without any way to take care of our family. I can’t say how the money is being spent in other parts of the state, but in Kershaw County, it’s helping families that truly need it.”

Samantha nodded and added that the councilors at her children’s school as well as others working with United Way of Kershaw County had been a “God send from heaven.”

Being the sole provider

Melanie Jones,* 22, saw her mother lose her house to foreclosure. Melanie went from living with her mother to bouncing between her father, aunt and grandmother.

She ultimately made the decision to permanently move in with her boyfriend at the time.

“It seemed like the right thing to do at that time,” she said. “I didn’t really see any other options.”

Melanie became pregnant and gave birth to twins last February. That’s when she knew she had to begin making some changes.

“It wasn’t just about me anymore,” she said, “I don’t want my children changing homes and changing schools the whole time they are growing up.”

She already had a certification in public health, but she began taking classes to work towards becoming a nurse.

While she has a full time job working at a fast food restaurant in Camden, she ultimately hopes to be a physician’s assistant when she finishes school.

Melanie and the twins are living at New Day on Mill, a partner agency with United Way of Kershaw County that provides affordable transitional housing for women and children.

“I finally had the realization that I’m going to be the sole provider for my children,” she said. “If it wasn’t for my aunt helping to take care of my children while I’m at work, if it wasn’t for Harriet here at New Day on Mill, I’m not sure where we would be.”

Since returning to school and moving into New Day, Melanie has began volunteering within the community.

“My whole mind set has changed so much,” she said. “I saw I needed to make a change and that’s what I’m doing.”

The young and the homeless

Being homeless is not a problem most 18-year-olds have to handle, but for Chris deMaintenon, it’s a reality.

Chris moved to Columbia from New York with his mother earlier this year. The two moved in with Chris’ aunt, who told

Chris he had to find a job within one month to continue living with her.

“I filled out at least one application every day that month,” Chris said. “I had a few interviews, a few calls, but not a job offer.”

When the one month was up, Chris still didn’t have a job and his aunt, staying true to her word, dropped off her nephew at a homeless shelter in Columbia.

“As it turns out, I got a call from Burger King offering me a job just a few days after she kicked me out,” Chris said, “But they called the house and I didn’t know about it until a month later.”
For the past six months, Chris has lived on the streets of Columbia.

“Yeah, I was upset, but you can’t cry about it forever,” he said. “I’ve just gone into survival mode. I start thinking about how I’m going to eat and how I’m going to make money. It’s that simple.”

Chris said he adapted quickly, has made friends and has found temporary work to get him by.

“I certainly don’t want to live like this forever, but it is difficult to break the cycle,” he said.

Hopefully, Chris said, one of his temporary jobs working construction will become permanent.

“If I can make this job work, I’ll be on my way out of this situation,” he said.

Traci Carnes with the National Coalition for the Homeless has stepped in to try and help Chris and others in his situation.

“I don’t think people realize that 1.6 million homeless people are part of our youth population,” she said. “It just breaks my heart when I hear Chris’ story.”

Carnes has helped Chris travel across Richland and Kershaw counties to speak to groups of people about homelessness and that it is a real problem facing younger people.

(Editor’s note: * Indicates that names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed by the C-I)

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