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Homelessness remains high among Midlands youth

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Columbia, S.C. (WACH) -- Homelessness among the youth population in Columbia remains staggeringly high, a trend seen across the entire United States.

It may not look the way the way many people typically believe.

19-year-old Kiara Towner has been staying at a Columbia youth outreach center, Mirci, after a path she says is marked with bad decisions.

"I made a lot of bad decisions with my parents, mostly my fault," said Towner. "I was living with this one guy in a camper in his parent's backyard. I moved back in with my parents, made even more bad choices, and then left again."

When asked why she left, she said it was with good intentions.

"I have a lot of younger siblings," said Towner. "Whatever decisions I make reflects back on them. They're going to look back to that and follow that path. And I couldn't have that. So, I eventually made the decision to leave."

Towner and others like her, in their various life situations, do not have permanent housing but they are not on the streets. Yet, they are considered homeless.

Officials with Mirci and other organizations in the area have seen a rise in what they called "unaccompanied homeless youth" not only in the area, but in the entire country.

During the 2013-2014 school year, nationally, more than 1.3 million homeless students enrolled in U.S. public schools.

This is according to statistics compiled by the Richland School District One, who typically has some of the highest numbers in the state. Consistently more than a thousand homeless student they serve.

"When it comes to how homelessness is defined educationally, it's probably very different from what you may be thinking of," said Deborah Carlson-Boone, the McKinney Vento Coordinator for the Richland School District One.

Carlson-Boone says homelessness in school systems across the country is defined by the McKinney Vento Assistance Law.

"Homelessness is anyone, any student, who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," said Carlson-Boone.

This makes it possible for students to enroll without all of the necessary paperwork usually required of students, such as birth certificates or social security documents.

"They're able to enroll so that they don't have to miss any of their education," said Carlson-Boone.

According to stats with the Richland One department, of the 984 homeless children and youth last year, only 12% were unsheltered or living in at-risk environments. 59% were doubled-up with another family, 21% lived in a motel/hotel, and 8% lived in a shelter or transitional housing.

The data, Carlson-Boone, says is indicative that homelessness is a pervasive issue and not easily defined or identified.

"The majority of homeless youth come from homeless families," said Carlson-Boone. "And the majority of the families do work. They do have an income and want the same things for their children that we want for our children...But affordable housing is the issue. They can't afford housing in Columbia or other places based on their income. It's frustrating."

According to data with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a two bedroom apartment is typically around $823. In the state, a worker earning a minimum wage must work 87 hours per week every week of the year to afford a two-bedroom unit.

School systems here in the Midlands are beginning to work with local organizations and programs that take a more intensive approach to both defining and addressing homelessness.

Mirci is in the works of opening a boys home, which would not only give youth a place to stay, but will have staff on hand ready to assist, along with internet capability, access to job opportunities, etc. They are also in the works of establishing a similar home for girls.

For families, organizations like Homeless No More work with both children and their parents to tackle the problem not only from the child's perspective but from the root.

"For the kids, we provide an afterschool program here where they live so that mom can go to work and not have to worry about rushing to a daycare center," said Kayla Mallett, Program Coordinator for Homeless No More. "We provide tutoring and homework help, mentoring and program partners like the Museum of Art."

They also work on behalf of the children in their care if their parents aren't able to due to work or other circumstances, doing everything from providing nutritious dinners to speaking with educators about the child's schoolwork.

"We want to give these families the stability they need so that, instead of worrying about putting out fires, they're fixing their credit, or getting their high school GED, so that they can pay rent on their on and they don't have to bring their kids to a shelter every afternoon," said Lila Anna Sauls, President and CEO of Homeless No More.

For more information on local statistics on homelessness, as well as ways the community is helping, visit the following links:

National Center for Children in Poverty

National Alliance to End Homelessness

National Low Income Housing Coalition

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