FORT MILL — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part II of an ongoing series examining the reality of homelessness in Fort Mill.
Learning about Fort Mill’s homeless community of about a dozen people in woods near Carowinds Boulevard is sparking call to action.
“I was surprised there was anyone living that way in this area,” said York County Councilman Michael Johnson, R-District 1, who represents that part of the township. “I think it was a shock to most people to hear there were people living in the woods around Carowinds.”
Johnson has been on the job only a few weeks and is still learning his way around the Council. He said he plans to ask Sheriff Bruce Bryant about the homeless situation and talk to the county manager to find out what the county is doing to help the homeless.
“I think this is a new challenge for our area. If these people want and need help, we need to do what we can, certainly,” Johnson said.
Lora Holladay, head of the Homeless Task Force for the United Way of York County, said a frequent perception is no homeless people live in still-growing Fort Mill, where a residential construction boom saw the rise of hundreds of high-end homes.
“But that’s untrue,” Holladay said. “Some [homeless people] are from York County but not all; the majority have migrated from Mecklenburg (County, N.C.), or up north who are coming to the area because they think there are more jobs.”
Holladay helped open the United Way’s two warming centers in Rock Hill five years ago. She said Fort Mill is an ideal location for a third center. The warming centers are open from November to March for the homeless to get a respite on cold nights.
“A warming center can be a jumping-off place,” Holladay said.
“They come inside, and we can connect with them. Maybe over time, they realize what services are available to them.”
She said if the money were available, she would like to see the centers open year-round.
An interested church or community center in the Fort Mill area would need to help by providing security, staffing and a hot meal for residents in the evening, Holladay said.
“We could teach them what we’ve learned and help them get resources to help pay for the few costs,” she said. “There are not many costs.”
Meals are almost always covered by volunteers, Holladay said.
“I know the Fort Mill community is a great community. If someone did that [opened a warming center], you wouldn’t have trouble finding people to help,” she said.
Dale Dove, founder of Renew Our Community, suggests an alternative to a warming center similar to what the homeless men and women in the Carowinds Boulevard area are used to – but with upgrades.
“Why don’t we create a campground?” he said. “They could create a space appropriate for these people to live in. Put in showers for them, toilets and Laundromats. Give them police protection, sanitation, garbage pickup. They need a place they can stay and no one will run them off.
“They can wash themselves and wash their clothes, and use the bathroom with dignity, because a lot of these folks are happy with the freedom they have right there.”
Like a warming center, a campground would allow the homeless a chance to interact with social workers or agencies that could suggest services available to assist them.
“If you had them coming to one place, you can get to know them and learn them, and they start to trust you and you can say, ‘Let me help you work on your GED or getting your driver’s license.’ Then you can start trying to help them.
“You start building relationships with them.”
That’s when the real work starts, Dove said.
Helping the homeless with immediate, basic needs, such as giving them a coat to keep warm or food when they are hungry is the “relief” work, he said.
But once those immediate needs are met, the work has to begin to help address the problems that caused the homelessness.
“It’s easy to give relief, but how do we get you to where you don’t need relief?” Dove said.
ROC is working to help answer that question for its clients, he said. But ROC needs help finding clients temporary and permanent jobs, transportation, housing and other services.
“This is our community and our responsibility. These are our neighbors,” he said.
“The community’s got to have a game plan.”