Billy Rollins bounced from foster home to foster home throughout his teen years until he found a haven this year at age 22.
He had turned to sleeping in a breezeway at the Richland County courthouse with other homeless people. When Rollins’ behavior cost him a bed at another Columbia facility, a lawyer who works with the homeless helped Rollins into a new program at Transitions center on Main Street.
The new program accepts homeless men and women ages 18 to 24 on an emergency basis and tries to put them on a path that will keep them from becoming chronically homeless, its supporters say.
The 9-month-old program has given Rollins the first sense of safety and stability he can recall since child protection workers removed him from his parents’ Chesterfield County home. He was 13.
“Being homeless is very tough,” said the soft-spoken Rollins, looking at the floor as he retold his life story and explained the value the program holds for him. “You just don’t know what will happen. It’s not stable.”
This winter, he lost his fast-food job, was tossed from another program in town and ended up huddled at the courthouse.
Dakota Wells, an 18-year-old originally from Warren, Ohio, has had a difficult life since child-protection officials removed him from his biological parents at age 4, he said. Wells has lost count of the number of Ohio foster homes he was in as well as those during the nearly three years he has lived in South Carolina.
“I used to be a bad little guy,” said Wells, who is a talkative, outgoing, cocky teenager – the opposite of his friend Rollins. “I hate to admit it. I used to be one of those fire-starters.
“I look back now and I know I made the right decision (joining the Transitions program), because now I have people who care about me here,” Wells said as a broad smile crossed his face, showing a dimple that prompts teasing.
Transitions and the services it offers have helped connect Rollins, Wells and 50 other young adults to a sense of security and purpose they have not known, according to Lauren Wilkie and Alysha McConnell, the program’s two key staffers.
“When you’re here, at least I can help you,” McConnell said she tells participants, many of whom have developmental and learning disabilities as well as behavior disorders and substance abuse problems. “There’s a lot out there to manage on your own.”
Sometimes her profession leaves her feeling like she’s mothering “20 kids, no daddies.”
Wilkie puts it simply. “The No. 1 need that these youth have is someone to listen,” she said.
Since Transitions started the program in August, largely with corporate donations, participants have gotten medical treatment, found jobs, permanent housing or are getting diplomas, Wilkie said. A handful have dropped out or been expelled, including a couple who tried to peddle drugs to the rest of Transitions’ vulnerable homeless population, she said.
Eighteen young adults are at Transitions now. They can stay as long as six months. But there are many more than the facilities in Columbia can manage, Wilkie and McConnell said.
What distinguishes Transitions from other local programs for young adults is that it has enough beds to take participants quickly and shepherd them through services available from other providers, said Constantine Pournaras, an attorney with the Richland County Public Defenders office. Pournaras also represents clients in the city’s Homeless Court.
“Getting that immediate housing, that’s the gap Transitions fills,” he said, explaining that other programs are always filled or take longer to admit clients.
While at Transitions, the young residents get beds to sleep in at night, hot meals and showers. They meet curfews. They get group counseling, and they police each other to abide by program rules, said Wilkie and McConnell, a case manager for Transitions’ adults and for the youth program.
And they get health services, including medications for the unexpectedly large number of them who have mental health difficulties, Wilkie and McConnell said.
About 40 percent of them have mental health issues, Wilkie said, compared with about 30 percent for the overall homeless population.
“That’s something that surprised me,” she said. Participants can receive medication, accepting the responsibility of taking it properly, she said.
Ashley Cutrone, 23, was among the first in Transitions’ program last summer. She’s also one of its successes, having graduated in October, Wilkie and McConnell said.
Seven months later, Cutrone says she’s living in an apartment, has a job in retail and expects to regain custody of her youngest child, a 1-year-old son, who’s in foster care. She has to complete a parenting class, among other responsibilities.
Cutrone said she feels like an adult now. She is showing she can live without curfews and without people telling her to make good decisions.
“I feel like I’m more independent now. I can cook for myself. I don’t have to worry about what people can do for me.”
But she still turns to Wilkie or McConnell when she needs them. “I still have support,” Cutrone said.
A snapshot of Transitions’ young adults program
Here is an overview of the 18- to 24-year-olds who have participated in what started as a pilot program in August 2016. For more information, email transitions@transitionsSC.org.
52 have enrolled
23 have found permanent housing
10 of the 23 have jobs
9 of the 23 have reunited with relatives
7 of the 23 are in school
18 are in the program now
SOURCE: Transitions, a center of the homeless
The Columbia area has a few other places where teens and young homeless adults may get temporary housing and other services. Advocates say more facilities are needed, but here is a partial list.
▪ Leaphart Place in West Columbia has 20 apartments where residents 18 to 25 years old may live and pay rent based on their incomes. They are placed there through social services or mental health caseworkers.
▪ Palmetto Place is an emergency shelter founded in 1977 for children who have been abused or neglected. It opened a second location that serves homeless teens and at-risk youth ages 16 through 21. Palmetto Place has more than 50 beds for its residents.
▪ Mental Illness Recovery Center Inc. (known as MIRCI), has four young men, ages 17 to 24, in apartments. Seven more units are to open this year.
▪ Palmetto Assertive Community Treatment treats four young, homeless adults who also have mental illness challenges. The 18-month-old program, which is considered one stop short of hospitalization, is part of the Palmetto Health hospital system. Palmetto ACT could accept more clients in the 18-24 age group.