Mention the word homelessness, and it may evoke certain images – urban locations, emergency shelters or harmful stereotypes.
University of South Carolina social work professor Ann Gowdy is working to encourage a different perspective. Her focus is on advocacy and raising awareness about homelessness among youth and young adults – particularly those in rural areas of the state.
“I want to give young people who are experiencing homelessness and who sometimes feel invisible the opportunity to feel heard and validated,” Gowdy says. “I want them to feel included, to ask questions and express what they need without feeling judged.”
Instead of dismissing them because of their age, advocates need to create opportunities that allow youth and young adults to share their ideas about how resource agencies and advocacy organizations can better serve them, she says.
Gowdy shares this message across the state by raising awareness through speaking engagements, symposiums and legislative briefings.
“By talking about it, we raise awareness among our local communities about risk factors and potential resources,” she says. “I was born and raised in Lake City in the Pee Dee, so it's important to me to serve our local and rural communities that may not always get a lot of attention.”
By serving on the board of the South Carolina Interagency Council on Homelessness, she also collaborates with other stakeholders – state agencies and nonprofit organizations – to work collectively to increase awareness and to address the needs and issues of those experiencing homelessness in the state.
In 2023, the council’s Task Force on Youth Experiencing Homelessness worked to pass a state bill to classify homeless or unaccompanied children from birth to age 24. Previously, there was no single definition for homeless youth in South Carolina, which made it made it difficult to determine who qualified for aid and how to plan and implement improvements to ensure future success. The new bill allows state agencies to operate from the federal definition.
“Having the state Legislature recognize a definition of youth and young adult homelessness is huge for our advocacy work,” says Gowdy, who provided testimony on how passage of the bill would benefit local communities. “It will allow us to gather more accurate data on the number of youth and young adults in South Carolina who are at risk and experiencing homelessness.”
Before joining the College of Social Work full time in 2023, Gowdy served as an adjunct professor for eight years. She also worked for an agency that provided housing and homeless services in the Pee Dee region. With that background, she began to focus on homelessness among young people in rural areas. She seeks opportunities to raise awareness among individuals, small nonprofits and local coalitions that homelessness
exists – not just in urban areas – but in their small communities as well. It’s also important to help identify risk factors as well as potential resources.
“Our community members and community-based organizations are thirsty for knowledge,” Gowdy says. “We have the largest university in our state, and I view the community as a sprawling classroom, and we have the opportunity to help share the knowledge and information we have.”
One potential opportunity to reach out to communities through service and education, Gowdy says, would be to offer experiential learning opportunities for social work students to serve clients who are at risk or who are experiencing homelessness. She says it's important for those working on the issue of homelessness to feel equipped and have a support network. In the next year or so, she hopes to have students in placements to fill some of the gaps or needs in this area.
For members of the public who want to get involved, Gowdy says the most important thing they can do is to learn about the issue of homelessness and talk about it to help raise awareness and understanding. She also suggests going to the South Carolina Interagency Council on Homelessness’ website for more information about efforts in their local region.
“I try to not have a large ask or complicate what needs to be done, she says. “I think about the quote from Arthur Ashe: ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ I want local citizens and communities to figure out what that looks like for them. I hope our impact is to help connect the people who want to improve their community.”