FORT MILL — Editor’s note: This is Part I of a series examining the reality of homelesness in the Fort Mill area.
Karen Clute sits in front of the tent she calls home, chopping red peppers, onions and mushrooms on a piece of cardboard.
To her left is a plastic bucket filled with rain water where she washes her clothes and dishes each day. Scattered around the outside of the tent are empty bottles, jugs and overturned crates.
The interior of the tent is a nest of browned pillows and blankets.
It’s lunchtime, and she’s preparing vegetables for chili she’ll cook over an open fire.
Clute, 45, has been living in the woods off Carowinds Boulevard for a year with her husband, Bob. The vegetables were fished from a dumpster the day before.
“They throw out vegetables with bad spots, and we salvage them,” she said.
The couple has been homeless off and on for 15 years.
“You have a job, lose it and this is where you go,” she said.
The Clutes aren’t alone here.
There are many makeshift campsites in the area, inhabited by others who have lived here from a month to four years.
They’re just yards away from the parking lots of hotels that fill with vacationers visiting Carowinds amusement park in the summertime They are the invisible residents of the Fort Mill township.
A place to call home
Lester “Skip” Frankenfield and his dog Cassie have called a rusted minivan in the woods home for nearly four years.
The minivan serves as Frankenfield’s bedroom. Around the van, Frankenfield has set up a campsite that is as much a home as a patch of woods can be. Tarps cover a kitchen area where he cooks on a gas stove with food he gets with food stamps or donations. Next to his stove is his “pantry,” a crate with spices and seasonings he’s collected through the years.
Before becoming homeless, Frankenfield worked for a Charlotte builder’s supply company. When the recession hit, he was downsized. Then, three family members died within a month of each other. Frankenfield became depressed. He turned to alcohol to cope, and before long, he was drinking two bottles of wine and four bottles of liquor a week.
“That was just for one week. I knew that was no good,” he said.
Not long after, Frankenfield became separated from his wife, lost his home and was homeless.
Since then, he has been treated for depression and alcohol abuse. “My life is going in the right direction,” he said.
Though he lives in the woods with little more than a tarp to cover him in the rain, Frankenfield counts himself lucky.
He receives some government assistance – disability benefits and food stamps.
“There are people worse off than me,” he said. “I’ve learned to be grateful for what I have.”
Frankenfield keeps his eye on the comings and goings of the other homeless residents in the area and offers them help when he can.
The Rev. Roald King, head of Feed the Hungry, a group that helps the homeless in the area, said Frankenfield frequently helps him identify who is living in the area and is happy to help him distribute food, water and other supplies.
“Sometimes I think it’s my lot in life to help people better themselves,” Frankenfield said.
Frankenfield estimates there are at least 20 people living in the woods in the Carowinds Boulevard area. King said he believes that number is as high as 100.
Lee James is a newcomer to the area. Frankenfield has taken him under his wing.
James has been homeless for four years. He came to Fort Mill a month ago by hitchhiking.
Like Frankenfield, James is an Army veteran. He has worked off and on in construction and, when he can get a ride, tries to pick up jobs by hanging out around Lowe’s and Home Depot. Lately he hasn’t had much luck, because he hasn’t been able to shower or shave.
“People don’t have much respect,” James said. “They judge by the cover, not the book.”
When asked how he became homeless, he answers straight forward: “Ma’am, I drink a lot. I’ll be honest.”
The only source of income James has is panhandling, what he calls “flying a sign.”
James has a singular focus – to get an ID card, which would open the door to government assistance.
He can’t get an ID card, he said, because he doesn’t have his birth certificate or Social Security card. He does have his Army discharge papers and is trying to get a ride to the nearest Veteran’s Affairs office to ask for assistance.
James’ frustration with the system is evident. He talks about walking into the DMV and how he feels looked down on by the people working there.
“It makes you confused, and you get madder and get kicked back down. Then you just learn to live with it,” he said.
It’s a problem the homeless often face, King said. Without an ID card, the doors to government assistance are usually closed.
But to get an ID, a citizen has to have proof of identity and date of birth, King said. A birth certificate fits that bill but costs $50 for a copy.
“If you give someone who lives in the ‘have nots’ $50, they aren’t going to get a piece of paper,” he said.
Proof of residency also is required for an ID, something the homeless do not have unless they are living in a shelter.
Asking for help from his family is out of the question, James said.
He takes a deep breath and begins crying as he talks about his adult son and daughter.
“They just think I’m a truck driver,” James said. “I can’t tell them what’s going on. I can’t.”
‘This is real’
Clute, Frankenfield and James were surprised to have visitors last week. They are typically left alone, they said, except for King and sheriff’s deputies who check on them and drop off food and water now and then.
The property they are on is owned by York County. Technically, King said, the homeless living there are trespassing. But the trespassing laws aren’t enforced, he said, because “where are they going to go? The streets? There is no homeless shelter in Fort Mill.”
Both Frankenfield and James say many people aren’t aware homelessness is an issue around the township. They walk to a gas station on Carowinds Boulevard every day to get a newspaper or to use a sink to freshen up, and sometimes encounter someone who asks what their situation is.
“I tell people I’m homeless, and they’re like, ‘No, you’re not.’ I say, ‘I wish that was true,’” Frankenfield said.
“This is real,” Frankenfield said, looking around his campsite, covered in tarps to protect him from the rain and wind. “This ain’t no joke.”
“That’s for sure,” James said.
Want to help?
The Rev. Roald King of Feed the Hungry helps the homeless by dropping off food and other necessities, such as hygiene products and hand towels, sleeping bags and cots.
Here are specific needs: Frankenfield said he could use a good wood for burning stove and gas cards to buy unleaded gasoline for a gas stove (preferably a gas card to a gas station within walking distance). He and James cook frequently and welcome donations of meat, cheese, eggs or any food they could prepare over their stove. Karen Clute needs women’s clothing in sizes XXL or XXXL, as well as pots and pans with tight-fitting lids for cooking.
Call Feed the Hungry at 803-417-3881 to find out more.
Serving Meals Ministry, a Fort Mill-based group, is mobilizing efforts to begin delivering hot meals to the homeless community. For more information, call 803-230-4009.