JOHNS ISLAND—Drivers on their way to the resort islands of Kiawah and Seabrook pass by pockets of poverty every day without even realizing it.
Emma Smith is one of those pockets; living off the grid in such extreme conditions that people wonder how she’s done it for so long.
“You do what you have to — to survive,” she said.
For the past five years or so, Smith, 61, has lived in the burned-out shell of her family home, or in a tent in the front yard. No water, no electricity. She cooks her meals over a fire, using flashlights and Tiki torches for light.
“She lives like it’s extreme camping,” said Jan Breuer, a volunteer with Home Works of America. “It’s very hard to believe that in the U.S. in the year 2014 someone is living in these conditions.”
It wasn’t always like this for Smith. The Johns Island native graduated with a degree in sociology and raised a family. About seven years ago, she said budget cuts ended her job in senior ministry, so she returned to her family home along Betsy Kerrison Parkway. But a fire in 1995 had left the home gutted and uninhabitable.
Eventually, unable to find work and with no other alternative, she moved into the condemned building, with blackened walls and a leaking roof.
People noticed her walking, or riding her bike. They saw her attempts at comfort: outdoor chairs, a tall stand full of plants, and more seats around the fire pit. But few knew her story.
Kathy Coder, secretary at Holy Spirit Church, said it seems no one gets involved these days.
It wasn’t until last winter, when the Lowcountry was hit over and over by snow and ice, that Smith started going over to Holy Spirit, right across the street from her home, to warm up and get a cup of coffee.
“Her hands would be just frozen,” said Coder. “When she came over here and started talking to some of the ladies, and they heard her conditions, that’s when they reached out.”
They called Home Works, who developed plans to fix the dilapidated house. Despite equilibrium issues, Smith jumped in to help the team and various church volunteers, including a group from Holy Spirit.
The first day, they cleared and cleaned the house, positive despite the soot and grime. But the second day brought bad news. Hank Chardos, founder of Home Works, had to call a halt to the project — something he hasn’t done in 19 years of the program.
“It was all boarded up before. Once we pulled the boards down and got a full look, the damage was just too much,” Chardos said, adding that it was then that they realized the tremendous structural damage the fire had caused, coupled by almost 20 years of exposure.
Chardos said they did what they could to create a temporary dwelling space, putting boards on the floors, walls and ceiling, and replacing Smith’s bed and linens.
“It was really devastating,” said Breuer. “To go into it with such hope that things were going to be better and all of a sudden it’s dashed. I really felt for [Emma.]”
As for Smith, she’s heartbroken. “I’ve put my story out there so many times and nothing’s come of it,” she said. “I’m just so downhearted, I’ve given up [on getting back in the house].”
From disappointment, though, comes hope.
Chardos said it gave Home Works’ volunteers a chance to understand the poverty in their own community. They were also able to connect with Smith’s daughter, who is raising a son, working, and going to nursing school. In September, Smith will move with her daughter and grandson into a two-bedroom apartment in Charleston.
She hopes it will provide a turning point in her life, with more job opportunities and public transportation.
For now, she continues her life of extreme camping, and if someone asks if she needs anything, she says, very firmly, “A job.”
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