“Homelessness is a complex and thorny problem.” Those were the initial words of an editorial published in Charleston’s Post and Courier this spring. The editors might have added that, for Charleston, homelessness is also somewhat perplexing: How is it that a city so seemingly wealthy, whose citizens are obsessed with their residences, cannot find solutions for accommodating its neediest residents? That’s exactly what political science and philosophy double major Kirk McSwain ’16 was investigating in his bachelor’s essay.
McSwain came upon this topic through firsthand experience as an intern at Charleston’s main homeless shelter – One80 Place. One incident in particular galvanized his interest in exploring solutions to homelessness.
“A guy came in one afternoon when I was working in the front office,” McSwain remembers. “He said it was his first day being homeless and he asked, ‘Do I get a bed?’ We were full, as the center often is, and I couldn’t do anything for him. There’s almost always a waiting list. So he asked if there was anywhere else he could go for the night, and I had to say ‘no.’ You could see the shift on his face. His shoulders slumped, and he just walked out.”
McSwain says his objective with this research project was to find out what populations aren’t taken care of by our current system: “You see people out on the street at night and it’s apparent that their needs aren’t being met. And that situation seems so incongruous with the rest of Charleston. So, I wanted to examine and summarize the current policies that are being followed by organizations engaged in homelessness here, and then offer some specific solutions by way of alternative best practices.”
According to McSwain, most municipalities have an emergency shelter that offers nightly programs: “That’s really what I think our city needs in addition to One80 Place. That facility has a lot of great social programs – for example, access to an in-house lawyer and case managers that help individuals work through issues like finding employment,” he says. “But the downside is that there’s a waiting list and the facility doesn’t accept homeless people who are alcoholics or drug users.”
McSwain favors an approach that’s known as Housing First. Among other priorities, it emphasizes getting homeless individuals and families into housing as quickly as possible. “Another component of that system,” he explains, “is permanent supportive housing, particularly for the chronically homeless (those people who have been homeless for four years or more). It may seem expensive to house and support these individuals, but studies have proven that it’s more economical than having to police them and cover their health care costs when they’re on the street.”
After graduating this spring, McSwain plans to work in this field with a nonprofit organization. Later, he hopes to pursue either a law degree or an M.P.A.: “Ultimately, I want to go into the world of policymaking and continue addressing the problem of homelessness. I’m a very results-driven person, and I think our society can find better ways to resolve homelessness and do that economically at the same time.”