Helping the homeless: Columbia woman gives back

Helping the homeless: Columbia woman gives back

By Deborah Swearingen

Lila Anna Sauls often tells people that she fell into her role at St. Lawrence Place, a Columbia transitional housing community for homeless families.

As a graduate of the University of South Carolina’s journalism school, she expected that she would move to New York City and live in a brownstone apartment.

“C’mon,” she said, laughing. “That’s what all journalism majors are supposed to do.”

But for more than 10 years, she has worked at St. Lawrence Place and now serves as executive director.

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St. Lawrence serves as transitional housing for homeless families in Columbia. Photo by Deborah Swearingen.

What began as a volunteer position teaching life skills programs for Trinity Housing Corp., the nonprofit that hosts St. Lawrence and other similar programs, ultimately morphed into her current position.

St. Lawrence Place was founded in 1989 by Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Sauls said that she used to come to the St. Lawrence facilities simply to make copies for the classes she was teaching elsewhere.

“It just kind of took off from there,” she said. “That turned into, ‘Hey, can you help us with our newsletter,’ and ‘Hey, can you help us do a fundraiser?’”

For Sauls, the job is tiring but incredibly fulfilling.

She realizes that the work she’s doing is important for those living in the 30-home community.

“At the end of the day, you know you’re doing the right thing,” she said.

St. Lawrence provides intensive programming that teaches the life skills necessary to stop the cycle of homelessness, Sauls said.

The programs are not just directed at the adults but instead target separate issues for family members of all ages.

Families can stay in the housing for up to two years. While they’re living on site, the adults must have jobs, follow community rules and participate in various activities such as life skill classes where they learn personal financing and cleaning.

Sauls said that families are held accountable and added that the strict rules often encourage families to speed up the process.

“It’s the difference between living in a dorm and living in an apartment,” she said.

After two years, the family “graduates.”

Sauls said that they are allowed to take to all of the furniture from their home with them in the move.

Alumni events are held after the families leave, so she is able to keep in touch and know what the former residents are doing.

At a recent alumni cookout, Sauls said she realized a change in how one alumni was interacting with her.

Curious as to why the former resident could now laugh and joke with her, Sauls said she questioned the change.

“Before you were like the principal, but now you’re my friend,” the alumni told her.

Shenita Johnson, who lives at St. Lawrence Place and works in the office as an intern, said that Sauls does a great job of making everyone feel like a part of the family.

The St. Lawrence Place facilities offer several buildings for programs and activities. Photo by Deborah Swearingen.

The St. Lawrence Place facilities offer several buildings for programs and activities. Photo by Deborah Swearingen.

“She is way funny, and I don’t even think she knows it,” Johnson said.

Johnson moved to St. Lawrence with her two children in November and began the internship program in February. She also works at Sally Beauty Supply, and her full schedule often leaves her exhausted.

But she said she’s grateful to be able to give back to a program that has given so much to her.

She also serves as president of the neighborhood and hosts meetings where residents can voice ideas and concerns.

Johnson recalled a recent time when the community was concerned about safety issues in the neighborhood.

She said that the residents wanted to get the locks fixed on the gates.

As soon as Sauls found out about it, she fixed the problem to ensure that everyone felt safe.

“She’s really hard on herself,” Johnson said.

But, she said, Sauls takes a lot of pride in the organization and pays attention to what’s going on in the community.

“We have to understand that it’s our job to meet them where they are,” Sauls said.

Homelessness and poverty can never be fully eradicated, she added.

“What you’ve really got to do is figure out how to give the homeless the tools to get out of that situation,” Sauls said.