FORT MILL — Part V in an occasional series documenting the reality of homeless people in Fort Mill Township.
James sits on one of several outdoor chairs around a smoldering campfire ring on a recent 80 degree day. He’s shaded from the sun by tarps, cooling off by drinking iced tea from a can.
He’s wearing a Fort Mill Yellow Jackets T-shirt and talks proudly about attending Fort Mill High School in the early 1990s before dropping out in ninth grade, and about his hometown of Fort Mill.
“I remember when Fort Mill was a very close-knit community,” James said. “You couldn’t go anywhere and find someone you didn’t know. Everybody knew everybody.”
James, who asked that his last name not be published, has been living in the woods off Carowinds Boulevard for more than a week. He’s homeless by choice, he said.
He was living with friends but claims he didn’t like their lifestyle. There are other places he could stay, but this suits him for now, he said.
“I was ready for a change and believe it or not, a lot of people don’t realize how nice it is out here. This is a place to deal with your demons. I’d rather live out here with people with their heart in the right place.” he said.
James’ demons are “nothing sinful,” he said, just “living recklessly, out of control.”
He’s worked in construction off and on. He’s not currently employed, but “I always keep my eyes open,” he said.
When James decided it was time for a change of pace, he moved into the woods to live in the homeless camp with Lester “Skip” Frankenfield, who has lived in the woods off Carowinds Boulevard for nearly five years.
This is the second time James has lived in the homeless camp in the woods.
“I’m sure it’s temporary. It’s a stepping stone, but I say that in a good way. It’s positive,” James said.
He talks about “old Fort Mill” and growing up in the downtown area. In recent years, he’s watched the community grow, but it still hasn’t lost the small-town spirit, he said.
“Just because you may not see people you know like you did, it’s still a wonderful place, with smiling faces,” James said. “And Fort Mill is a place I can say with confidence I really enjoy spending my life in and really have no ambition to leave. A place I’ve been all my life. A wonderful place.”
He points out that even though he’s living in the woods, he still hasn’t left his hometown.
James and Frankenfield aren’t alone. John Mullis, who says he’s originally from Rock Hill and a lifelong York County resident, also lives in the woods alongside them. Mullis has been homeless off and on several times before, including a six-month-long stretch once, but was most recently living in Rock Hill with one of his sons until the son moved away in early March.
“My great-grandparents taught me home is where your heart is, so that’s the way I live my life. I don’t worry about a roof over my head,” Mullis said.
Mullis didn’t want to leave the area, so he decided to hunt down an old friend, Gary, who was also homeless and used to live in the camp near Frankenfield.
Mullis ran into Frankenfield while looking for Gary and found out some bad news about his friend.
Gary was hit by a car while crossing Carowinds Boulevard in 2011, Frankenfield said.
Mullis was invited to stay anyway, because that’s what Frankenfield does. Even though most people think of Frankenfield as a person needing help, Frankenfield likes to be the person offering assistance. He gives people a hand when they need it, including sharing his limited food and water resources with anyone in the campsite.
Mullis accepted Frankenfield’s offer and is building himself a small shelter in the woods out of scrap lumber from area construction sites, along with furnishings, including shelves.
The shelter is no thrown-together project. Mullis is determined to make his shelter as homey as possible. The floor is stained a deep red and has a polyurethane seal to protect it. He plans to do the same for the bookshelf.
Two other men, in their early 20s, are also living near Frankenfield. They’re looking for jobs and hope to find work in the area soon. Frankenfield is mentoring them, hoping to help them get on their feet and “give them some direction,” he said.
Frankenfield sleeps at night in an old car. The other men sleep in tents and under tarps.
Just four weeks ago, Frankenfield was the sole resident of that patch of woods. Neighbors Bob and Karen Clute, also homeless, still live nearby at another campsite.
The population surge around Frankenfield is something he said happens nearly every spring.
The warm weather brings more homeless people into the area, he has said, sometimes as many as 12 to 20 new residents.
The weather also changes their needs. In the winter, keeping warm was the priority. Wood to burn and gasoline for the stove are important. Now, water is a must and ice is something they have to collect daily, along with wood for the fire, which is still needed for some cooking.
“People think it’s easy to be out here on a daily basis, but there is stuff you have to do every day,” he said.
An area hotel gives them free ice, but getting water is more difficult. Frankenfield has a large water jug but needs a wagon to haul it back and forth from the water source.
Despite the sometimes difficult day-to-day life in the camp, the atmosphere is lively, a sort of men’s camping club with no definite end date.
It’s a drama-free zone, Frankenfield said, which the men in the camp and visitors enjoy. He likes to imagine there is a “drama tree” out in front of the camp and whatever drama, stress or worries people have are dropped at the tree before coming into camp.
“And you have to take them with you when you leave,” Frankenfield said. “It’s just a different way of life here. A lot slower and more relaxing.”
Just be careful to choose the right tree to lay your worries on, because at least one of them is home to an eight-foot black snake that enjoys sunning itself in the branches. He has become the campsite’s mascot, “Chester.”
Money is frequently tight, but there are some sources of income for food and other needs. Mullis draws disability. Frankenfield also gets some government assistance via food stamps. James has a wife who checks on him regularly. He hopes, soon, that he might fully reconcile with her and be able to live with her and their two kids again on a regular basis.
When the Fort Mill Times began reporting on the homeless camp in January, donations rolled in to assist. Firewood, food, clothing, and blankets were donated, among other things. Those donations have slowed down somewhat, but many of the faithful keep coming, Frankenfield said.
Some stay and chat for awhile, he added, and Frankenfield is happy to count them among his new friends.
“It renews your faith in your fellow man,” he said.
Though they don’t have a lot, their needs are few, Frankenfield said.
“Out here you learn the difference between wants and needs,” he said.
And more than any material things that people can donate or that money can buy, Mullis said, he has learned that being happy is most important.
And is he happy?
“Yes,” he says, with a satisfied nod. “Yes, I am.”
Editor’s note: We agreed not to publish James’ last name even though he’s likely to be familiar to some local residents and some aspects of his life are part of the public record.