FORT MILL — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth installment of a series examining the reality of homelessness in Fort Mill.
Donnie Bowen, 48, sits hunched over on a bench in downtown Fort Mill. He’s wearing a heavy coat over camouflage overalls and a knit cap that barely conceals the wiry red hair sticking out around his head.
Sometimes he glances at the people walking past. Other times, he barely looks up. Some days, he has too much to drink and lays down on the bench and sleeps.
Bowen has been homeless and living in Fort Mill for 11 years, he said.
Every day, Bowen shuffles around downtown on his bad knees, from the Cleaners near the railroad tracks, up to the top of Main Street, and back again. The bad knees likely come from years of sleeping on concrete and asphalt.
“I walk. I walk all day,” he said.
Many days, he relies on the kindness of a few people he calls “angels” to provide him with a warm meal. Mary Baker of Serving Meals Ministries brings him a few meals each week, and Julie and David Faile, who live near downtown, have been helping Bowen out for nearly a year by bringing meals and other necessities.
The Failes make sure Bowen has extra blankets in the cold weather, jeans, and the heavy coat and overalls he wears were gifts from them as well.
Some days Bowen is able to find people to pay him to do yard work.
“I love to do yard work,” he said.
But that can be a problem. Some people take advantage of Bowen by paying little for a day’s work, said Julie Faile, and others pay him with cheap liquor.
“He just takes whatever they will give him,” she said.
“I just want people to be happy,” he said.
On the streets
On a recent Saturday the temperature was 25 degrees. Bowen sat on a bench behind Kimbrell’s Furniture store and huddled under an electric blanket to keep warm. The blanket was a Christmas gift to Bowen from store manager Jackie Ramsey, another of Bowen’s “angels.” He plugs it in behind Kimbrell’s and sits on the bench near the loading dock.
“If it weren’t for them, I’d freeze to death,” Bowen said.
“He is part of our Kimbrell’s family,” Ramsey said.
Bowen is “precious” to Ramsey, she said. He reminds her of her grandfather, she said, who was a kind man but “he had some issues.” She remembers people didn’t always look beyond those issues to see the kind-hearted man behind them.
“There is good in everybody. Everyone needs to take a moment to think, ‘why is this person in this situation?’ A lot of people would be surprised how many people we overlook in life who are wonderful human beings inside,” she said.
Hunched on his bench, Bowen doesn’t immediately give off a welcoming air. He admits he looks a little frightening to strangers.
“I won’t bite,” he jokes.
But a stranger calls out a friendly “hello,” and Bowen cracks a big smile.
Bowen has a hard time explaining how he became homeless. He drinks frequently during the day and his stories often meander with no conclusion. There is an ex-wife, a girlfriend who had a tragic accident, alcoholism and joblessness.
Although Bowen says he has no family living nearby, police say they believe he has one relative in the Fort Mill area.
Bowen sleeps at night on a patch of concrete. He has a few blankets. He can’t carry his things around all day and doesn’t have a home base where he can store anything.
His teeth are giving him problems – one fell out last week. He also has the knee trouble and unknown ailments from years of alcoholism.
When he has had a few extra items, such as pants or an extra blanket, he stashes them in hiding spots and on occasion, they’ve been stolen, he says.
Other than meals from Ramsey, the Failes and Baker, Bowen is left to get food in a way “I’d rather not say. I’ve just learned to survive,” he said.
“I’m trash,” he said, as his eyes fill with tears. “People treat me like an animal. Like a dog.”
Julie and David Faile are quick to comfort Bowen.
“You’re not trash,” David Faile assures him. “You’re a human being, just like all of us.”
Bowen hasn’t lost his sense of humor, despite his tough living conditions. He perks up after a few minutes and points at a dumpster across the street. He talks about picking through the dumpster for food one day when suddenly, the dumpster began to move. Bowen laughs remembering the look on the face of the man emptying the dumpster when he realized someone was inside it.
Eye on homeless
Maj. Bryan Zachary, public information officer for Fort Mill Police Department, said Bowen has been offered help from time to time by people, but “it comes down to a choice to persist and live that way.”
Occasionally, Bowen is arrested for public disorderly conduct, being grossly intoxicated or trespassing in town parks. But generally, “He doesn’t create a problem,” Zachary said.
Officers keep an eye on Bowen, he said, by checking on him when it’s cold and when he is sleeping outdoors.
“We try to encourage him to get with friends or family and find an adequate place to stay where he is warm and more safe, but this has been going on for so long, it’s obvious it’s a choice he makes to be in that position,” Zachary said. “But he’s not breaking the law.”
Asking Bowen what he needs becomes a circular discussion.
“Well, what do you need? I’d like to help you,” Bowen said.
He will not ask for help. In the year the Failes have been helping him, he’s never asked for a thing, they said.
Bowen doesn’t like to talk about needing assistance, but it’s apparent food is a primary need.
Because he has nowhere to store things, he can only accept a single meal at a time.
The Faile family has offered to store things for him and distribute them to Bowen as he needs them.
If anyone is interested in helping Bowen, the Failes can be contacted at 803-242-7689 or email@example.com.