Being homeless in the capital city of South Carolina means having your rights curtailed. Your daily decisions about where to sit, eat, or sleep are in part made up for you; your range of movement is limited; and your actions are closely monitored by police. One wrong move and you’re arrested, spending the night in one of the most dangerous jails in South Carolina.

Being homeless in Columbia is, in short, a civil liberties nightmare.

This week on the podcast, we’re diving into the root causes of homelessness and the eviction crisis. Our guests are homeless aid provider Regi- Solis and Glynnis Hagins of the South Carolina NAACP.

For more information about South Carolina housing justice issues, visit our Housing Justice landing page.

For more about Columbia’s ineffective, inhumane, illegal response to homelessness, see our open letter Homes, Not Handcuffs.

If you would like to push for housing justice in our state, ask your state lawmaker to cosponsor House Bill 3844, guaranteeing Eviction Right to Counsel.

Music by Daft Hartley and A Spot on the Hill


PAUL BOWERS: It's a bright sunny day in September. I'm at the Richland Main Library in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, riding up the escalator, and the light is beaming in through the windows. For as long as I can remember, this glass and concrete building in the heart of the city has served two purposes. It's a temple of knowledge, and it's a place where homeless people hang out during the day. I'm looking for a man named Regi- Solis, and it's fitting that I'm meeting him here.

For six years of his life, Regi- was homeless in Columbia. He has a home now, across the Congaree River and Cayce, but he's still on a first-name basis with a lot of people at the library. It seems like everybody knows him here. The librarians, friends who he stayed with at campsites, and social workers who have offices on the library's third floor. I find Regi- on the second floor, near the graphic novels and the craft studios.

He has a salt and pepper beard, boxy framed glasses, and a black cap with the rainbow-colored logo of his homeless service organization, Needful Things. He looks as much like the homeless people I have known as he looks like the grad students I have known. We grab one of the meeting rooms and set up a microphone, and he starts telling me about what it's like to not be homeless anymore.

REGI- SOLIS: Well, the things you can't get — the thing that took me about a year to get over was going anywhere without my backpack. That was my security blanket while I was homeless, so it was hard to give that up. And it took me about two years before I could actually sleep under the covers on a bed, because I wasn't used to that anymore. And that's one of the things that's hard to get, when you've gotten used to being a certain way, it's hard to change back.

Going homeless, you're forced into that situation so you don't have a choice. But once you have that choice, it's kind of hard to transition back.

BOWERS: That lack of choice is something Regi- remains keenly aware of. He's been fighting City Hall for months after Columbia City Council passed several ordinances criminalizing the daily activities of homeless people, including an expanded ban on urban camping and a weirdly specific set of laws governing possession of stolen shopping carts.

He's especially agitated about new police enforcement that has prevented homeless service providers from serving meals at public parks, bus stops, and sidewalks.

SOLIS: The reason it's gotten worse is because of the failings in the city system. The thing that's gotten this started was Finlay Park closing. The city knew it was closing and that was the only place you could get a permit to feed people.

They knew that was going to end, but they made no alternate plans. And that's a majority of the place where people hung out during the day, because that's where most of the people took their meals.

BOWERS: Regi- says the situation for homeless people in Columbia has gotten worse in the past year. But to one degree or another, being homeless here has always meant having a lot of your rights curtailed. Your daily decisions about where to sit, eat, or sleep are in part made up for you. Your range of movement is limited, and your actions are closely monitored by police. One wrong move and you're arrested, spending the night in one of the most dangerous jails in South Carolina. Being homeless in Columbia is, in short, a civil liberties nightmare.

From the ACLU of South Carolina, this is While I Breathe, a podcast about civil liberties. My name is Paul Bowers, communications director at the ACLU of South Carolina.

JACE WOODRUM: And I'm Jace Woodrum, executive director at the ACLU of South Carolina.

BOWERS: Jace and I are both born and raised South Carolina boys, so we know that in recording a podcast about civil liberties issues in our state, we'll never lack for material. But Jace, when we started talking about making a podcast, you wanted to start with a series of episodes about housing. And I think that might be a counterintuitive choice for some of our listeners. You know, we're the ACLU, we're the free speech people. That's kind of what we're known for. But I was wondering if you could share some of your thinking on housing justice and why this is a civil liberties issue and why we're taking it on as an organization.

WOODRUM: I think of access to housing as a civil rights issue, and that's not new.

I mean, when we think about the civil rights issues of the 1960s, I think we often think about voting or education. But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, they championed fair housing in the 1960s because they knew that housing is a key determinant for outcomes in life. Things like your health, your income, your educational opportunity. And they were really pushing the Fair Housing Act. They were championing that. Unfortunately, it didn't become law until after King's death. And what it does, right, it prohibits segregation and discrimination by landlords, real estate agents, and banks. So, you know, equal access to housing is a civil right guaranteed under our laws.

But we don't live in a state where housing is actually treated as a basic human right. Regi-'s story makes that clear.

BOWERS: Yeah, you know, one thing I've learned just in the past year about the housing system in South Carolina is how lopsided the courts can be, that it's not a good place to get a fair shake as a renter, as a tenant in this state.

Some of the civil liberties that we talk about are the liberties that you have in court, you know, the right to an attorney. It's a systemic issue that we don't always think about in systemic ways. I think, coming back to issues of homelessness in Columbia, we treat homelessness like an individual failing. And everybody's story is unique, but there are reasons why we have sky-high eviction rates in this state. Reasons why cities like Columbia, North Charleston, and Greenville in particular are evicting people at rates higher than almost anywhere in the country. So I'm glad we get a chance to dig into this.

And Columbia in particular, we know is a place with one of the highest eviction rates. The Princeton Eviction Lab rated it number eight in the country among large US cities for eviction rates a couple years ago. It's really stunning. I think one pattern we're going to come across a few times in this podcast is just that there is a moral argument to be made, there's a legal argument to be made, and there's an economic argument to be made for expanding people's rights here.

WOODRUM: Yeah, you raised a lot there. I mean, I think the connection between homelessness and eviction is an important piece there, right? So we often just think, here's someone experiencing homelessness. I saw them as I exited a store on Main Street. We don't often think, huh, how did this happen? How did we get here? And, you know, eviction is one primary way that people end up without a roof over their heads. And what you're talking about here, Paul, is people who are facing eviction, not having an advocate with them, not having knowledge of their own rights for how to stay in their homes.

And so these things aren't often talked about together, but they are deeply interconnected. High evictions lead to a greater homeless population. And I just want to make that really clear because I don't want us to see them as distinct problems or distinct challenges.

BOWERS: Up next, I have with me, Glynnis Haggins from the South Carolina NAACP. Glynnis, welcome to the podcast.

GLYNNIS HAGINS: Hey Paul, thank you for having me.

BOWERS: And I really wanted to talk to you because you've been working in that field. You've been leading your organization's work with something called the Housing Navigator Program. I wanted to start by talking a little bit about you and how you got involved in this work.

HAGINS: Yeah, so I taught for four years in North Carolina and I did come across several students who were homeless and a lot of them were protected under the McKinney-Vento Act. All students who are facing homelessness are protected under the McKinney-Vento Act. And so that means that they can either remain in their home district, even if they're living out of district, or they can move to the new district without having to present proof of address. and other bureaucratic hurdles that prevent kids from enrolling in school. And so I was familiar with this from the guidance counselor, but it's a different thing to actually meet the students who qualify for McKinney-Vento services and who are facing really, really dire situations.

I had a student who was living with an aunt because his house burned down. I didn't even know this information, like he was sleeping in class and he was, and yeah, it was kind of a cascading set of consequences. So he was sleeping in class, he wasn't turning in assignments and he was on the brink of failing the semester. And if you failed this class, you have to repeat ninth grade. And so his story really touched me and it really stuck with me just because you never know what circumstances a student is facing.

And they're not going to be as outright with it because there's a lot of judgment and a lot of stigma when you're not living in a traditional household and a traditional family. And so again, his story stuck with me. And as I was looking at jobs after law school and looking at pro bono opportunities that the law school provided, there was an opportunity with the Housing Navigator program that the NAACP, the local Columbia branch was running. And it interested me because I'm like, there's so much that this program could do to connect families to resources. And at that time, it's peak pandemic. We're talking 2021. There's a ton of money flowing around in rental assistance. There's an eviction moratorium. And so families had more protections than they had ever had before. And so thinking back to my experiences with that student, but other students, I thought that there was a way that these programs could intermesh, intermingle, and we could get families connected to resources.

BOWERS: I started off this episode talking with Regi- Solis in Columbia about his experience, his time living without a home in Columbia for years and years. And he talked about some of the lingering effects that even after he was back in a home, he still struggled with things like getting used to sleeping on a bed under sheets again. There were barriers and forces of habit that were hard to overcome. In your time meeting homeless students, talking to homeless families, what have you observed? I mean, what are some of the effects that homelessness can have on people in the long term?

HAGINS: I think for me, because the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness is much broader than the broader federal definition, in that students can be doubled up and just apart from family qualifies as homeless, I look at this question a little bit differently that I'm not seeing folks having a hard time transitioning into, you know, living in a traditional home again. I find that the cascade of consequences to go back to something I said earlier, it has a lingering impact. So for students who face homelessness, they're behind their peers in terms of grade level proficiency. So like that's the academic side, but they also face social consequences too. And so I look at that from the child's perspective of this is a major trauma, big-T Trauma, and they're having to go through this while also developing into the human being that they're going to become. And sometimes it informs the decisions that they make as adults. But then I look at the adult perspective and in South Carolina in particular, with such a high eviction rate and evictions that remain on a person's record forever, indefinitely, I think about how it's so difficult to continue to find housing once someone's been placed in this situation. And the difficulty of maintaining stable, permanent homes once the cascade of consequences from it.

One eviction, one mispayment in rent that can have on a family. And then, like I said, the academic and social consequences for the kids who are in this environment and are really helpless to be able to fix it.

BOWERS: Well, tell me about your work with the Housing Navigator program. What sort of help have you been able to provide through that?

HAGINS: I think it's a lot of referrals to make sure people get connected with the right help. So again, during the peak of the pandemic, that was making sure people have what they needed in order to get their rental assistance applications processed. So it was a really complicated process. And if one small piece of paperwork was missing, like a letter from the landlord or pay stubs from the last three months, that could be the difference between an eviction and remaining stably housed.

BOWERS: One thing I've been surprised about since I'm fairly new to this type of work, I've been stunned that organizations like yours have to fight sometimes in court just to provide basic services like that. There was another case last year that involved getting data so that you could do outreach to people facing evictions. You know, really basic things you have to fight just to really get started on the program. But the NAACP as an organization, I know, gets involved in all kinds of struggles in this state, and we're proud at the ACLU that we get to work alongside you on some of those. But tell me a little bit about, from your organization's perspective, how you decided on housing justice as one of your priorities.

HAGINS: Honestly, Paul, housing justice as a priority predates my time at the NAACP. And I'm going to go off on a limb and say that it's been a huge priority for the organization, probably for the life of the organization. If you think back historically to the civil rights movement, it wasn't just about voting rights. It wasn't just about equal citizenship. It was about enjoying the full realm of civil rights afforded to Americans. And so that fight for fair housing, it lives on. It continues to this day in a world and in a space where we are still seeing folks denied housing because of the color of their skin, because of how they get their income, because they receive a housing choice voucher. There is still rampant discrimination.

And so, like I said, I think about the history of the organization and the strive for full participation in the American system and the American dream. And housing is at the most basic root of that. Because if you don't have stable housing, you can't fully participate in the voting system, in the education system. Name a system in America, you can't participate if you don't have basic access to necessities, housing being one of them. And so I think that that fight continues in the state of South Carolina and nationwide in order to make sure that everyone has access to stable housing.

BOWERS: So with the Housing Navigator program, as I understand it today, a lot of that work is happening in schools, kind of back where you got started in this. Tell me about where it stands today and the work you're able to do with the local school district.

HAGINS: So yes, the Housing Navigator program and the South Carolina State Conference have a partnership with Richland One School District. It was actually part of my project as a Skadden Fellow with the NAACP and my project proposal was partnering with local school districts in order to make sure that families within those districts had access to the housing resources. And so currently we have had a series of housing clinics with Richland One that travel around the district in order to connect families with the resources in the community. One of the most surprising things, but I know it would be true if I were in similar situations, when you're going through something, you don't really know what's out there, what's available. And so we found that families come in and they say, I got a wealth of information from this clinic that I didn't know existed in the Columbia area. And so that's really been the crux of the Housing Navigator program right now. And we have brought in a series of service providers, wonderful volunteers from community organizations who come to every clinic to make sure that they're connecting with folks and getting them through the intake for each of their organizations.

BOWERS: During the pandemic, as you mentioned earlier, there were some protections. There were moratoria on evictions. It was kind of an unusual time. But now that a lot of those protections are gone, we're back to the status quo in South Carolina, which is a crisis. There is a housing crisis. There is an eviction crisis. Our metro areas, Columbia, Charleston, Greenville counties, in some measures lead the nation in evictions per capita. We have these underlying problems that we still have to resolve.

From your perspective, what needs to change? What steps can we take as a state to ensure that full participation, full access to justice?

HAGINS: I think starting with more robust tenant protections would be wonderful. That would be a wonderful place to start. I mean, I'm looking at expungements and record sesaling because I know that's a huge barrier to folks being able to get access to stable housing. So if there could be some law, rule or regulation around eviction, expungement, and record sealing, that would be perfect. I know both of our organizations, but the ACLU of South Carolina has led the forefront on an eviction right to counsel. We know that there's a right to counsel for folks who are facing criminal penalties, but when it comes to eviction, the bar is so low and the cost is so high, yet we still act like someone can go in in front of a court who doesn't, who's not in front of a court every day and go represent themselves to the best of their ability to retain their housing. And the way that the court system and the Landlord Tenant Act is set up, because there aren't robust tenant protection, tenants are already facing a losing battle.

So if we can do a combination of both right to counsel and more robust tenant protections, that would be wonderful. And there are several bills in front of the legislature in this legislative session that I think could do some of that work. Affordable housing is a big issue and there's currently a bill in front of the legislature right now to give tax credits to religious institutions who build affordable housing. Things like that, some like proactive legislation and regulation building that could combat the issues of eviction and homelessness that are facing so many South Carolinians. If we could focus on that, that would be wonderful. And that would give tenants the protection, not just tenants, but all South Carolinians, the right to housing, stable housing that they deserve.

BOWERS: I'll include links to some of those bills in the show notes because yeah, there are some solutions that they're up for debate. They're in the State House right now. And yeah, things like eviction right to counsel, expanding the rights of tenants could be a significant shift for this state. We'll be getting into that in the next episode for sure. I'm going to be speaking with our friend, Michelle Mapp, who was previously a coworker is now out on her own, but probably the most knowledgeable person I can think of in the state talking about that idea, guaranteeing the right to counsel for people facing eviction.

I'm also looking at the idea of housing courts, local courts that specifically deal with evictions. And yeah, one thing we're finding is that when people are able to hash it out in court with legal representation on both sides, it's a win-win. One for the tenants because they more often get to stay in their homes, but also for property owners, landlords, because they more often are able to recoup back rent. Rather than just evict someone they're working out agreements and they're getting the money they're owed. When people have their rights guaranteed, it ends in a more just outcome for everybody. So yeah, as we go into the next few episodes of the podcast, I think you've teed it up well. We have solutions with proven track records. We just need to push to expand them around the state.

HAGINS: So very true. And I couldn't agree more on all fronts. I think that we could be, South Carolina could really be at the forefront of so many positive housing policies. It's just a matter of us getting there. And so I really look forward to continuing these conversations and hopefully will one day get to see in our lifetime these protections passed.

BOWERS: Well, Glynnis, thank you so much for taking the time.

HAGINS: Thanks, Paul, for having me. This was a wonderful conversation.

WOODRUM: Well, y 'all, thanks for listening to episode one of While I Breathe, our new podcast. If you're interested in learning more about our work and our research involved in housing justice, go to our website, In the top menu, go to Issues and select Housing Justice. There you'll find more information about Columbia's anti-homeless ordinances, the causes of the eviction crisis, and our work with the South Carolina NAACP.

Next up on the podcast, we'll be talking about eviction right counsel, or the idea that you should have the right to an attorney when you are faced with the prospect of losing your home. It's not as far -fetched as you think. Until then: While I breathe, I hope.