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Sixteen and homeless: Two young Columbia women share their stories

At sixteen years old, Shaletta Bonnette was determined to change her life. She was a sophomore at Eau Claire High School, and she was homeless.

Bonnette had spent most her life sleeping in parks and cars with her parents and siblings. Desperate to redirect the course of her life, she decided to graduate high school early and advance to college before she spent any more time homeless. In addition to taking her regular classes, she began also taking online courses to move quicker to graduation.

Bonnette owned a laptop, which she carried with her while her family struggled to find places to eat, bathe, and sleep. “My family had no place to live, so I would find Wi-Fi close to wherever we chose to stay each night, and I would just stay up and work all night,” Bonnette recalled. “It was hard, but I convinced myself I was going to graduate early.”

Without a stable home, Bonnette often did not have a way to go to school, and she struggled to stay on top of her challenging academic load. Juggling so much homework without a bed to sleep in, she often fought exhaustion. “My family continued to move around, and I was so tired, I couldn’t focus. I had to force myself to be happy, because I was so depressed and frustrated,” Bonnette explained. “I wanted to give up, but I knew it was not an option.”

Bonnette’s parents and some of her siblings found temporary refuge in a small trailer owned by a relative. With ten people staying in one house, tensions ran high; food and running water were often a source of family squabbles and stress. Too many times, Bonnette did not have a meal to eat or a way to take a shower. So by the time she was in her junior year of high school, she decided she needed a drastic change.

Thankfully, Bonnette found her way to Palmetto Place, a shelter for children who have faced abuse, abandonment, neglect, or homelessness.

“For 40 years, Palmetto Place has been a home for children who have been abused or neglected,” said Grace Bennett, Palmetto Place’s project coordinator. “More than 7,000 children and teens have called us home, but the need in our community is even greater than that (now).”

In the last year, Palmetto Place has more than doubled the amount of housing available to children and teenagers. They now have 25 beds available for homeless teens.

Palmetto Place completely changed Bonnette’s life–she no longer struggled to make it to school and stay awake. “I have structure now, and I have stability,” said Bonnette. “I can work on school now and not have to worry about where my next meal is coming from, or how am I going to wash my clothes, or how am I going to get to work later. And, I’m safe. No one is coming to hurt me.”

Bonnette said her peers at the shelter have been very kind to her; the other teens seem to admire her, in fact. “I stay very busy and focus on school. The other kids were surprised by my class load and that I was graduating early,” she said. “They all said, ‘Ooh, you’re strong.’ And I mean…I like sleep, but I want my diploma, too.”

In 2017, Bonnette graduated from Eau Claire High School–one year early. Unfortunately, because she is still only seventeen, she is too young to obtain a lease for an apartment or live in many residential halls at universities. Undeterred, she has enrolled at Midlands Technical College for the fall 2017, and will transfer to South Carolina State University in the spring 2018, after she has turned 18. Her current goal is obtain her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and she is saving money earned from her job at Arby’s so that she can be independent after leaving Palmetto Place.

For Bonnette, Palmettto Place gave her the support system and structure she needed to succeed academically. “I don’t hate my parents. I love them,” said Bonnette. “I know they tried, and it was just too much to handle mentally, financially, and emotionally. They’re not bad parents.”

Homeless teens: The sad hidden truth of the Midlands

“A lot of people don’t know that teen homelessness exists in Columbia,” acknowledged Bennett. “When I tell people, ‘we take care of homeless teens in your neighborhood,’ the first thing they say is, ‘not in my neighborhood!”

Palmetto Place has expanded its housing into two separate homes, where children and teenagers live in dormitory-style housing. They currently can accommodate 30 kids and teens who are in foster care, and 25 teens who are homeless–or, as they are sometimes called, “unaccompanied youths.” This is a recent development; up until last year, the shelter could only house four unaccompanied youths at a time.

Out of the 25 beds for homeless teens, 20 are filled right now. The remaining five beds may not be filled soon, since public schools are on summer break. Often, schoolteachers, counselors, and social workers are the “second family” for many children, and the ones who realize when something is very wrong. “Unfortunately, neglect and homelessness often go unreported in the summer, because the kids aren’t in school and no one knows what’s going on,” said Bennett.

Many homeless teens in Columbia have been subjected to trauma, including physical and sexual violence. But according to Bennett, the biggest problem most of these children have faced is neglect.

“Homelessness and poverty do not care about your socioeconomic status–things can change in the blink of an eye,” she explained. “People think there are no homeless teens in Columbia because they’re not sitting in the streets with signs around their necks. Homelessness can actually look like a lot of different things, like crashing week to week in different homes like Shaletta’s family had to.”

Just like Bonnette had to make the decision to leave her family to improve her life, Bennett said many homeless families in the Midlands are faced with similarly difficult decisions every day. “It is so hard to explain the effects of poverty and educational neglect to someone who has never been through that,” she said. “Homeless families love their kids, but they sometimes have to choose between having running water, putting food on the table, or having clean clothes.”

As with cases like Bonnette’s academic struggles, homelessness can have dire effects on children. “When a parent cannot provide basic food, water, shelter, and cleanliness, it prevents the child from growing and achieving success,” said Bennett. “So that’s where we come in. We temporarily care for the kids, and with homeless teens, family reunification is almost always the end goal.”

Many families are still feeling the effects of financial and property loss during the October 2015 flood. “Fairly normal families have awful things that happen to them, like a natural disaster that displaces them, or a car accident, or a house fire, or the death of a parent,” said Bennett. “And sometimes, they’re not set up to deal with these tragedies. Poverty has so many contributing factors.”

Life at Palmetto Place

“Most teenagers think of summer as a break from education, but for our teens, it’s a chance to work 40 hours a week for three months and build their bank account,” explained Bennett. “14 of the homeless teens have part-time jobs, so our staff stays busy taking the kids to work and to job interviews.”

Shaletta Bonnette

Out of the 33 teenagers who have come through the unaccompanied youth program, 23 have graduated high school like Bonnette, and 12 of those teens went to college. Palmetto Place also put 16 unaccompanied youths through driving school and procured mental health services for all of the homeless teens in their care.

Homeless teens like Bonnette find a stable, nurturing environment to call home at Palmetto Place. The shelter has computers for the teens to do homework on, and the residents are required to go through life skills classes to build interview skills and financial literacy. “Many of them have never had a good example set for them,” said Bennett. “We teach them about things like getting a lease, buying a car, obtaining insurance, making repairs to their homes and cars, and how to save money and build an emergency fund.”

Palmetto Place also has an in-house counselor who leads group therapy sessions with the teens. However, the shelter does try to build a fun, family atmosphere for the teens, with movie nights, karaoke, and trips to the beach or the lake.

Striving for Change: A Former Homeless Teen’s Dream to Help Others
After living in a homeless shelter in Tennessee, Samantha Favor’s family relocated to Columbia during her senior year of high school to live with her grandmother. Unfortunately, her grandmother, who had late stage dementia, neglected to keep up with their bills, and Samantha soon found herself homeless again. Thankfully, Favor also found her way to Palmetto Place.

“I’ll never forget my first day there–it was such a positive, warm welcome, like a family,” Favor recalled. “I was very nervous because I had been uncomfortable living in a group home in Tennessee, but this was so different.”

With Palmetto Place providing her a home, Favor now had shelter, food, clothing, and transportation to work. “I didn’t have to worry about anything except school,” she said. “I got a part-time job and could just save.”

After graduating from Spring Valley High School, Favor worked part-time and attended Lander University, where she earned a bachelor’s of social work. In fact, Palmetto Place matched her with two local community members who sponsored her–one even took her to Wal-Mart before she moved into her dorm room and bought her everything she would need, including a microwave, bed sheets, and a trash can.

During summer and winter breaks from school, Favor was unable to remain in her dorm room and had to come home to Palmetto Place, but she actually said she enjoyed it. “I never really got to experience holidays before that,” she said. “My mom couldn’t ever have Christmas. So breaks were very fun at Palmetto Place, and everybody was always so welcoming when I would come back. It was really like a family.”

Samantha Favor

While in her undergraduate studies, Favor was able to obtain a lease and get her own apartment. She is now enrolled in the advanced standing Master of Social Work program at the University of South Carolina. “I want to work with homeless teens,” she explained.

“If you think you have never seen a homeless child, I would tell you that you don’t really know that,” she said. “Normally, the only way you find out is when they tell you they don’t have food or clothes or deodorant, or they’re unable to get showers. It’s not always living on the streets–it’s not having stable living.”

According to Favor, society buys into many untrue stereotypes about homeless families, and that can be very damaging to teens who do not have permanent living. “People think that homeless families deserve this–that they had money and chose to spend it on Christmas presents or something instead of paying their bills,” she said. “So there’s definitely a stigma. It really is something we need help educating people on. Try to imagine looking at it through your eyes, if you had to choose between paying your water and your electric bill, what would you choose?”

Shaletta’s Story: What’s Next?
As she works and prepares for her first year of college, Bonnette has not lost any of her ambition or focus. She recalls seeing her parents “jumping out of their seats” at her high school graduation, and is determined to continue proving her abilities and strengths.

Although she has achieved so much and overcame such obstacles at such a young age, Bonnette’s experiences have left her shockingly realistic. While most seventeen-year-old girls can eagerly share their dreams of marriage, having kids, and getting their dream careers, she is very cautious. “I have calmed down a lot, and I’m more positive since I came to stay at Palmetto Place. Before this, I thought there was no help at all, and whatever happens, happens. It’s not a good feeling. I know well the uncertainty life can throw at you,” Bonnette said. “You can have a solid plan for your future, and something can completely throw it off course. It is nerve-wracking. But I want to believe anything can be possible with hard work.”

Bonnette is a first-generation college student in her family, and reflecting about what her struggles mean for her and her family brought her to tears when she was interviewed for this story. “I know I have something to eat and a place to sleep now, and I don’t have to worry,” she said. “But deep down, I want for my innocent siblings. There is nothing I can do right now, and that’s what scares me the most. I want to get a college degree for myself, but for my family, too. I want to change the cycle my family is in,” she said.

How to Help Homeless Teenagers in Columbia
State and federal funding provides for less than half of the costs at Palmetto Place; the majority of their funding comes directly from the community, including book clubs and church groups. “You know that expression, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? Well, we have the best village,” said Bennett. “We have people who come help the kids with their homework, who come and cook meals for the kids. The mentors show these teens that there’s another path out there, and they have a family at Palmetto Place.”

Members of the public who are interested in helping teens like Bonnette are encouraged to visit www.palmettoplaceshelter.org to learn about volunteer opportunities, wish list items, and biographies of some of the children currently staying at the shelter. “We have ten high school seniors who just graduated and have a lot of needs–gift cards could go a long way for them,” Bennett explained.

Bennett and Favor both voiced the opinion that change really will not come as long as the Midlands keeps quiet about the problem of homeless teens in the community. “All these kids are fighting for the same end goal–a sense of safety and security,” said Bennett. “They needed to have someone who believed in them and gave them the educational support for their hard work. Palmetto Place shows them, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and this is merely the beginning of their lives.”

Favor suggests the public get involved by learning more about teen homeless and having conversations about community shelters like Palmetto Place. “I got so many awesome learning experiences when I was at Palmetto Place. They were my family, and I learned I could trust them,” she said. “Everyone there wants you to do the best and meet your goals. I wouldn’t be here right now without them.”

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