Roberts is a friend to the homeless, a lifeline to those who lack not only the most basic of needs, but also hope. Roberts offers them a chance to right their lives and, just as importantly, the assistance necessary to stay on the road to recovery. It is a responsibility he does not take lightly.
“When they fall down, we want to help them up. We want to walk with them through their struggles,” says Roberts.
It was seven years ago that Roberts first began having the spiritual encounters he credits with changing his life and giving him purpose. After growing up in Mt. Pleasant, he attended MorningStar University, a ministry school in Fort Mill, S.C. There he interacted with the homeless in nearby Charlotte, even comforting some men as they cried in his arms, confessing to crimes and other wrong turns in life. Roberts wept with them and resolved to be of service.
After graduating from Morningstar’s two-year program, he came home and enrolled at the College as an urban studies major. He also secured an internship with the Lowcountry Homeless Coalition, where, among other things, he helped conduct a census of homeless people in Charleston and surrounding South Carolina counties. This required finding a seemingly invisible population, whether on the street, in soup kitchens or in the woods.
According to Roberts’ research from January 2013, there are nearly 2,500 homeless people living in the greater Charleston area, about half of them outside of shelters. Significant portions of this population have been victims of domestic abuse and suffer from mental illness and/or substance abuse. There is also a significant population of military veterans among the homeless.
Many people, says Roberts, think that those who live on the street are there because they have made poor decisions in life. While that is indeed sometimes the case, there are also many homeless people who are victims of circumstance, whether they lost a job, suffered from an expensive illness or caught a series of bad breaks and lacked the support of friends and family. Regardless of who or what is to blame, Roberts believes that those without shelter need help. And help, he explains, is different than pity.
“Pity feels so good and so right, but pity means you give the dollar and just move on,” he says.
For Roberts, true compassion occurs when relationships are made with the homeless. Homeless people often need continual help to find and keep work, find and keep a home and create and follow budgets for their personal finances. No one, he argues, is a lost cause.
“You never give up on somebody as long as they’re breathing,” says Roberts.
Though he devotes much time to helping the homeless, he is also aware of other groups in society that could also benefit from more attention. As part of his urban studies practicum at the College, Roberts wrote about the relatively high mortality rate experienced by black children in South Carolina. His supervising professor for this study, Kevin Keenan, was impressed that Roberts chose to focus on a matter of social justice for the practicum, as opposed to, say, a research topic focusing on urban planning.
“I thought that was pretty insightful. We live in a society where we value careers, we value prestige, power, consumption of products,” says Keenan, assistant professor of political science and director of the Urban Studies Program. “You don’t really have a lot of students talking about social justice. Social justice questions tend to be the ones to require more work and require more thoughtful answers. You have to seek those out. They tend to not be as visible.”
Such is the case with homelessness, a problem to which there seems to be no quick and effective panacea.
The solutions that do work, says Keenan, oftentimes require a sustained interest and commitment from those providing aid.
Fortunately, people like Roberts have demonstrated such a commitment. And Keenan is struck by Roberts’ humility and openness: “He believes in serving other people, helping people help themselves. He does it because he truly cares about it.”
Freshly graduated from the College, Roberts has accepted a job coaching high school basketball in Charleston. He plans to continue his work with the homeless, too, knowing there are many people whose lives he can help improve. Many people whom he can give hope.