Craig J. Currey, chief executive officer of Transitions on Main Street in Columbia, hopes to one day be out of a job. Two and half years ago, and just a few weeks into his retirement as a colonel in the U.S. Army, Craig was asked to oversee the new facility. Aptly named, Transitions has a mission to transform people from homelessness to self-reliance. Since opening in 2011, Transitions has moved more than 684 people into permanent housing and provided them with the skills to sustain a life that does not involve homelessness and joblessness.
Still, there are more than 1,500 homeless men, women and children living in shelters, on the street or in wooded areas in Richland County, according to the S.C. Coalition for the Homeless “Point in Time” count taken in January 2014. Craig would like to see that number reduced to zero.
Craig was chosen to head Transitions because of his 30-year commitment to service. He says that his life has always been about serving and leading. His final posting, in fact, was as the Deputy Commanding Officer of Fort Jackson. At Transitions, his service is required in a multitude of ways.
Transitions is multi-faceted. It is staffed 24 hours a day by at least 25 full-time and 27 part-time employees, plus dedicated volunteers. It has a Day Center for the Midlands’ homeless who are 18 years and older. From 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., anyone off the street can walk into the facility, through the metal detectors, check in (there is a background check process for a bed) and enjoy an inviting, comfortable and beautiful environment. Once inside, everyone is referred to as a “client.” There are landscaped walkways in the courtyard, raised gardens that are tended by the clients, and the food grown is served in the dining area.
Day clients can eat lunch, shower, use the laundry facility, get a haircut, use workout equipment, watch scheduled television, play games and socialize. Those in need of clothes have an opportunity to visit the clothes closet, managed by volunteers, every four weeks and choose very specific items of needed clothing. Most often, clients need clothes because theirs have been soiled or stained or they need to dress up for a job interview or to attend church.
Regarding housing, there are “emergency” beds for those who need a temporary place to sleep but might not be ready for the structured long-term Transitions program. Clients can occupy these beds for up to 30 days. In this dorm area, there are also convalescence beds for those recuperating from an illness or an injury.
The Pre-Program housing is for those who are interested in the full-fledged Transitions program. The next step from this stage is the Program Entry housing where there are case management services for 60 to 180 days for those who want to begin the process of securing an income and permanent housing.
Finally, from the Program Entry housing, those in the transitional program will live in an environment that is a four-bed suite with a lounge — much like that of a regular apartment or house arrangement. There is a washer and dryer facility on each floor. Transitional housing is offered from six months to two years for clients to become equipped with living a life of self-sufficiency and independence. Clients at the two highest levels of housing must pay 30 percent of their income (if they have a source of income) to house there; however, there is opportunity to pay off previous debt as well so that clients can eventually leave Transitions without heavy debt burdens.
Sometimes it takes a little while to “coax” clients into becoming part of the program, explains Craig. He says that some people are reluctant for a number of reasons: they may be shy, embarrassed, afraid or cautious. “The staff at Transitions must take time to establish relationships and gradually show clients that Transitions is a one-stop location — and that that’s the beauty of it,” he says.
Those who are housing at Transitions must observe that breakfast is served strictly from 7 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., lunch is at noon, and dinner is from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. The goal of the kitchen staff and kitchen director, a Salvation Army employee, is for well-rounded quality fresh meals to be served. Much of the food offered at Transitions is donated by establishments such as Starbucks, Whole Foods, Panera Bread, USC and Harvest Hope. For times when food is not donated, meals are planned with food purchased from Sysco Foods. Typically, anywhere from 150 to 225 are served for each meal, daily. For those who are working off site, bag lunches are provided.
“We stretch the food dollar as much as possible, but we are still able to provide quality meals,” says Craig.
As Craig navigates from the offices, through the lush courtyard, to the Day Center area and through the free medical clinic, he greets clients, staff and volunteers alike with a smile and encouraging words. During his years in the military, he did not expect to be helping steer such an organization — yet the day-to-day demands feel like an extension of his duties for his country.
“Hey, something’s got to be done to help these people,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for service. Without help, many of these people will continue to struggle and just stay on the streets. It’s a noble effort … trying to get them what they need so they can overcome the barriers. I’m so grateful for our hard-working staff, volunteers and partners who see that doing this kind of work is good.”
Even Craig’s son, Paul, a college freshman, worked at a summer internship at Transitions. Also, Craig’s wife, Maria, assists with making birthday cakes for Transitions’ clients at the church the Curreys attend: Northeast Presbyterian.
The list of those who have made Transitions successful — and debt-free — is long. Workers from the Salvation Army and Goodwill assist in the kitchen. Richland Library volunteers help in the computer lab and in the library. Literacy is a huge obstacle for many at Transitions. Some do not know how to read at all, while others have a very limited literacy level. Volunteers from the library and the organization Turning Pages assist with reading skills, filling out applications and developing resumes — as well as navigating computers. Eau Claire Health Cooperative runs the free medical clinic. The Columbia Area Mental Health Center, the Mental Illness Recovery Center, Inc. and Lexington Mental Health Center address mental health issues. LRADAC helps those struggling with substance abuse. There are more than 25 regular partners committed to Transitions. Most are listed in the entrance area.
Then there are those individuals who donate their time and expertise to teach the required classes that clients in the Transitions program must take. The requirement is two hours weekly for those who have a job, eight hours for those who do not. Classes are listed daily on a dry erase board and clients can pick which ones they choose to attend. They include such subjects as Computer 101, Alcohol Support, Financial Literacy and Life Issues. Classes are taken in various classrooms, and when the class is completed, the hours are checked off a sheet that the client’s case manager maintains.
“One of our classes is even taught by a client who has his master’s degree,” says Craig. “There are all variations of homelessness. We have all ends of the spectrum here. Every story of homelessness is different.”
One client was a security guard for 20 years until he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. When bills piled up, he became homeless. In the Transitions program, he underwent treatment for his cancer, obtained disability and permanent housing and is now a board member at Transitions.
Another client, a former crack addict who also went through the Transitions program, obtained permanent housing, regained custody of her children, began working two jobs and eventually married. Her long-term plan is to become a social worker and specialize in drug and addictions counseling.
Besides taking classes, clients are also required to keep up with community service hours: one hour for employed clients and five hours for unemployed clients. Community service involves everything from assisting with garbage to cleaning up. All housed clients are required to make their beds and keep the areas around their beds clean. Each client is provided a lock to store personals.
“They are learning to make a better way,” says Craig. “Our case workers help them to determine what goals, classes and plans make sense for them. The case workers learn clients’ problems and then approach them with ‘Let’s figure this out.’”
Those who are in the program and who are working toward goals — especially employment and independent living — are provided stages of incentives to motivate them.
Transitions is located on Main Street near Elmwood and is surrounded by a church, daycare center, businesses and banks. Previously located on much of the property was a Comfort Inn, which was torn down. It is imperative, says Craig, that the Transitions site be a “good neighbor” to others surrounding the facility. Thus, the policy is that any homeless person 18 years and older can enter Transitions; they cannot just loiter around the property. Security will gently ask people to either come in or leave. Twenty-four hour security inside Transitions for those spending the night is also available.
Serious conflicts are rare; those who are disruptive are asked to leave. Since many clients are recovering from substance abuse issues or battle mental health challenges, conflicts can arise. Plus, there are ex-offenders who are learning how to be in the world again after spending time in prison. Those with a past involving sexual molestation are not allowed a bed at Transitions — nor at most facilities.
According to Craig, many who have a criminal past that does not involve sexual crimes are determined to change their course. Yet, most employers are hesitant to give them a chance. However, if an employer finds out the person is in the Transitions program and a caseworker provides information and a reference, an employer is sometimes more willing to offer a job.
“Everything here is geared toward transitioning people from temporary situations to permanence,” maintains Craig. “We want to get people off the street and keep them off the street. We want to teach them a different mindset … a long-term mindset when it comes to their health, their housing and their job.”