Welcome to the second feature in our South Carolina Housing Stories project! In this series, we will be talking with advocates, community members, and more about housing issues in South Carolina and discuss the need for housing investments in our state.
We spoke with Lila Anna Sauls, the President and CEO of Homeless No More to discuss the how the organization works to help transition families in difficult situations towards a successful future with their model. We also highlight South Carolinian issues around homelessness and the challenges Lila Anna sees daily in her community.
Part One: About Lila Anna Sauls
Lila: I am from a very small town in rural Orangeburg County. My hometown – Springfield – still doesn’t have a stoplight. I grew up there and came up here to get my journalism degree from the University of South Carolina. I worked in the nonprofit sector for education and rural economic development for a couple of years. I landed in what I call the service sector – direct services. I have been at Homeless No More for the past 18 years, specifically in leadership for the past 14. I have a Masters from Columbia College and a Doctorate in Organizational Change and Systems from Northeastern University of Boston. I have always been fascinated with the culture of organization and the systems in place.
I have five children, ranging in age from 9 year old twins to my oldest who is going to be 21 in August. They came up with me here; they have been raised here going to our summer camps. I served on the Richland One School Board as an official for four years, because the term ended as COVID set in. Because of what I was seeing with the families I serve, the education program here has always been one of my passions. So I ran really because I saw the education system from not just the lens of my five children who went to public schools, but from the lens the hundreds we were serving through Homeless No More. I served in an at-large capacity because I was known throughout the district. Enjoyed my term because I loved working with the staff and teachers and the kids, and felt like I was making a little bit of a difference. But I’m not a true politician at heart and decided after four years to step away, believing I could do just as much behind-the-scenes making the change I need to make.
Here, we went through a strategic planning process in 2015 that took us from a small organization that was just transitional housing to what is now 40 employees, a full system of care for families including emergency shelter, transitional shelter, and affordable housing development.
Part Two: Inside Homeless No More
Appleseed: Can you give a brief overview of what Homeless No More does?
Homeless No More serves at-risk and vulnerable families for children for the Midlands of South Carolina. We do that through a system of care. So that means we have “Family Shelter” which is a 30 day stay for the families who are literally homeless. We operate another shelter – St. Lawrence Place – that is considered transitional. That is up to two years. Those families are also homeless, but they are more stable. Those two programs offer supportive services; case management, life-skill programming, job coaching. For families at Family Shelter, there are rules. It is like a dorm, but the rules are more specific to a family in crisis. St Lawrence Place families have rules that are more specific to families who are working on a plan. The rule here may be there is a curfew because you are in a dorm. At St. Lawrence Place it may be you have to go to life skill class on budget, so that when you are graduating you know how to pay rent. Or you may have to go through 10 to 20 hours of training.
Our job is stabilizing at the Family Shelter; at St Lawrence place, it is to give the families the tools they need to be self-sufficient and independent. We never want to see them again. 96% of the families at St. Lawrence Place graduate to housing. That is success. Success is they leave us and they go on to their own housing and we never see them again. 96% do.
Success here is they don’t go back on the street or they go onto St. Lawrence Place or somewhere we identify that they get the next resource they need. We stop the bleeding here.
The third program is the affordable housing piece. That is where we truly either build or rehab affordable housing that is income-based. We either, right now we have three projects that range from 3 million to 10 million. We service the developer and design. We serve families from 30% average market income, which means it could be a mother with three children making $17,000 or 70% income – a teacher with three children making more. It’s a mixed-use model. It’s not pockets of poverty.
Our fourth piece is advocacy. We are trying to get the systems changed that will stop the cycles we see. Whether it’s housing advocacy, education, livable wage, SNAPs; anything that we see that affects the families we serve, we’re at the table trying to… basically trying to work ourselves out of the job.
What is a basic asset that you have found families to be missing when it comes to success?
What we have found is the basic skill missing is budgeting. It’s not a lack of understanding that they have to pay rent. I hate the stereotype that they are “working the system.” They aren’t working on the system, they just spent money on the wrong thing, looked up and suddenly don’t have it. They don’t know how to access the support to help them get through that month, or communicate “here is the issue.” So we’re in the odd position of being service provider and landlord, but we’re also in the odd position of knowing that, so we can stay two steps ahead and say “hold up, you missed your rent this month, what is going on?” The majority of the families are open to the conversation of what’s going on, then we step back into the role of service provider. What’s needed with the 30-50% income families, are those support services. Not mandatory. Just to have them there. To have the housing counselor. To have the budgeting classes. That takes a staff person. That takes space. It takes building relationships. Most landlords don’t have time or energy. Or don’t want to do it.
96% of the families at St. Lawrence Place graduate to housing. That is success. Success is they leave us and they go on to their own housing and we never see them again. 96% do.– Lila Anna Sauls
It’s complicated right? When you are on your own to do all the things. I think we take for granted the amount of work it takes to be stable.
We’ve seen it with the education piece. Right now, Midlands Tech has free tuition. At St. Lawrence Place we’ve been working to help families understand that this is an incredible opportunity. You can go get an associate’s degree or something for free. Our families, if they heard it, it was in passing. They don’t know how to get to a FAFSA. They don’t know how to go talk to somebody about the simple things. It’s not that they don’t have the brain power; it’s that the brain power is in survival mode and they are thinking about other things. So that case management piece, the life skills piece, helps them focus long term on what they can do. And then the next thing is let’s help you click on these buttons to do it. That is not something that people in our community who need it have.
Talking about individuals you meet, how do they come to learn about the program?
Families we work with… our families are not one standard definition. Our families our traditional couples. Single mothers, Single fathers. Multigenerational, so it may be a grandparent with their grandchildren or grandparent with their child and grandchildren. You’ll see grandparents that are 35. We will have 19 year olds with three children, or parents with 19 year olds. Our families are all over the place. Some will have one child, some will have six, and they come from all walks of life. Every stereotype you have in your head, I can break.
It’s a third and third and third we often say. We have a third raised in the system, so all they know is working the system. I have a third in what safety net programs are for; they are doing the best they can, but because of disability or something, they are not going to be able to make forward progress, or get a better job, or get a certificate. So the job there is to find the services they need to be stabilized. Then you have the rock stars who come and they are driven. They know they are going to take the advantage of the two years. They are going to learn and they leave and they buy a house… and they come back and they work for you. It’s like, “whoa.” We also have families who have so much humility because they know they are asking for help. We have families that also walk in and own the room. And then we have families that we can’t help, which crushes your spirit, because you’re full. And you lie awake at night.
Then there are the kids. The education building is half a block down. You can hear them play during summer camp. It’s 20-25 kids yelling and screaming and doing playground things. You know you have a chance to help them understand that surviving is not the only mode. If you ask them “where do they live,” they may tell you St. Lawrence Place or Homeless No More, and to them it’s a house. It’s not a shelter, because you can make it that way. Those are the families we work with.
Can you give an example of what it looks like for them, being in the program? What is the timeline look for like for a successful family?
The average length of stay is about 14 months for a family. When they hit that point that they are good and stable, they don’t like to stay. It’s just the next step and that is appropriate. It’s perfect. Every once in awhile you will have a family stay the full two years because I’m going to suck it up and for six months save every penny that I have. So that’s why they’ll stick it for two years. There are some that need to stay for two years.
Families will stay at the emergency shelter right up to the 30 days. What we have found with emergency shelters is you don’t make a ton of change in emergency shelters. Your job is to connect the families to resources quick. You want to make sure they have copies of their IDs so they can enroll their kids in school, or get their medicine or a job. Families here have a different set of needs; after 30 or 60 days at the emergency shelter, you are going to make life changes. Here, you are going to make immediate survival changes. Most of the families here will move on the day you run out of time. Because you are from California and that’s where your birth certificates are, it’s not as simple as going across town.
The affordable housing piece is landlord/tenant. You stay until you stop paying rent and move, or you income out. If you are in a 30% unit and you get a better job and there’s not a way we can transition you because it is mixed use, you may at the end of your lease transition to another apartment. Which is the beauty of our model, we can shift 30% to 50%.
Most of the families will move on the day they run out of time, because you need every minute of that to get copies of ID’s because if you’re from California and that’s where your birth certificates are, it’s not as simple as going across town.
What you usually see is the families who are walking in aren’t homeless; they’re going to be homeless. So our job becomes, “when are you going to be homeless?” Is there anything to keep you from being homeless as opposed to “why don’t you plan on moving into an emergency shelter in five days.” So, we become that resource connector to keep them from being homeless.
Part Three: Challenges Around South Carolina Regarding Rent
If you created more housing that was truly affordable, you would not have homeless people. End of statement. There is data that supports that. Affordable housing defined as a rent point people can pay, so there is accountability. They have skin in the game, whatever you want to say, but there is a roof over their heads. Period. It doesn’t have to be three bedrooms. I mean, it could be studio apartments; people live in studio apartments in New York City. There’s got to be an investment in that, and there’s got to be a quick investment in that. The issue right now is there is a lot of ARPA money out there, and no one has even figured out the application process. The piece of paper, they can’t figure it out. It’s not in my backyard, it’s not a lack of land, it’s can’t figure out how to get the application out so people can start building this affordable housing. That ARPA money actually allows for smaller foot prints because the usual money that we use for it, they’re big. And, you don’t make money off affordable housing, so the private contractors they’ll build it because they make money off the front end but once you walk away, you don’t make money. Because this is the population that ” won’t pay rent, ” or “they’re hard on the units” or whatever. So, they make their money on the front end and then they have to run it as affordable housing for fifteen years, and then they dump it real quick.
Housing Shortage: In South Carolina, there are 159,862 extremely low-income renter households. 71% of those households face a severe cost burden, meaning they spend more than half of their income on housing. There are only 46 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income renter households in the state. Overall, there is a deficit of 74,291 affordable and available rental units for extremely low-income households in SC. Learn more about the shortage in SC here.
This ARPA money allows for the units to be smaller, so it’s a lower overhead cost, because the thought is if there is another pandemic, and people lose their wages they can live off of their benefits. Perfect, it really is perfect. We just need to see it. That is not in anyone’s plans as far as the city, or the county, or state when you hear municipalities talk about affordable housing they’re talking about talent retention, and they forget that that lowest price point. But, they’re the same municipalities that are having the conversations about the homeless populations and wanting to ship the homeless people somewhere; and you’re kind of wanting to look at them and say: “Do y’all not see the connection here?” With that ARPA funding, they actually allowed for those same supportive services that we talked about earlier, the budgeting classes, the life skill classes, the on site person who says: ‘Hold up, you’re not paying your rent, what’s going on?’
Normally, you wouldn’t be able to pay for that. So, if you can get that push of money out, and get it into the hands of the right people you’d have that quick, development of units. But then they got to have that strategic vision to keep that in their plans. Nobody wants to do that because they think it’s for the poor people, and the bottom line is what it’s doing is it’s stabilizing your community and you’re not having to put money into the other services, like cleaning up Main Street. So I think that right now that is the biggest challenge facing this. We know that that money is there, and we’re just waiting for it. But, it is, you got to develop that housing.
It’s this idea of – and we saw it when we built on the corner – people automatically think it’s going to be ugly, dirty, nasty and I mean, we’re like: ‘no’. Especially if it’s mix use. It’s being done really nice now and it’s needed and they’ve talked about what to call it, we’ve spent so much time on a narrative and I’m laughing going: ‘I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to call it something everyone is going to like, so move on from that.’ But, I go back to my original statement, if you build housing, you will also solve the homeless problem. You’re always going to have homelessness because you’re always going to have a small percentage, who are just going to be homeless. You cannot outlaw homelessness, but for the most part, you will fix the problem.
You’ve talked about it several times, but just to reiterate can you talk about it from an individual perspective? Besides affordable housing, what services do you see families need the most? What kind of basics?
With our families right now what we are seeing is budgeting. Because, even if they’re working, they just can’t figure out how to prioritize where the money is going. I think because of the rent moratorium they got really used to not paying rent, so now it’s helping them understand, you got to pay the rent. There’s nothing in place to protect you if you don’t. So, it’s helping them reprioritize again.
Additionally education, and when I say education it’s not just ‘okay, how do we get the parents to move forward?’ May it be a certification, or an associates, not a four year degree, but something to help them move from a ten dollar an hour job, which make it twelve now, but something that has benefits and it has growth potential. Versus, the gig type, you miss the bus they’re going to fire you, you can’t come on because your kid is sick, stability, as far as your employment. So, the education piece and then the education with their children. Helping the parents who have kind of gone through a system where they were pushed forward, to appreciate, understand and support their children’s education. So you can break the cycle that put the parents where they are, because you want them to be able to go to parent teacher conferences, and them to understand IEP’s and what their kids need to succeed.
Finally, what is something you feel that people should take away about the work at Homeless No More?
I think the interesting part of it is is that most people still do not understand the breadth of what we do. You either know us as: ‘oh you run the family shelter of St. Lawrence place.’ We’ve grown so much since 2015. We got the data, we got the experience, and so the voice we’re now using is going to be very loud. Talking about the needs for our families. Period.
We want to thank Lila for taking the time to speak with us Homeless No More. Please visit Homeless No More to learn more about their work and how you can help. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Additional Resources/Further Reading
Out of Reach ’22: Learn about the high cost of rent by state in this detailed report from NLIHC.
The Gap ’22: The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s research on the housing crisis in the US and it’s impact on renters.
Take Action: Use this tool to advance the most possible investment in Housing for the fiscal year.
Learn more about Housing Challenges in South Carolina: Visit our HoUsed Campaign resource page for more information on the housing challenges in South Carolina