It's hard to have a conversation with a man who just stares at the floor.
Shoulders slumped. Head down. No eye contact.
Mike Clawson knows that well.
As manager of The Haven, a shelter for homeless men in Rock Hill, he's seen plenty of men who are broken and empty.
And he knows the time it takes to bring them up -- the months of listening and nurturing, the backsliding and finally, the triumph.
"We let each individual be who they are," said Clawson. "We don't interfere with their lives, but we try to provide guidelines."
Homelessness has become a hot topic in Rock Hill. A homeless count will be conducted statewide on Thursday. City officials recently approved development of a 10-year plan for finding solutions. A winter warming center for women opened late last year at Pilgrims' Inn that complements a similar center for men at the Salvation Army.
The progress is encouraging, especially when you consider that just three years ago there was no emergency shelter or rehabilitative program for single men in Rock Hill. Previously, area men were bused to a Charlotte shelter, which was closing its doors to our needy.
That's when seven agencies pooled their resources to open The Haven to get men out of the cold. Original plans called for closing the place in the spring, but organizers realized a year-round facility was needed to help the men change their lives and become self-sufficient.
Today, we provide emergency and transitional housing for 12 men at a shelter on Archive Street. It is open from 6 p.m. until 8 a.m. each day. The men find us through word of mouth or are referred to us by law enforcement officers, hospitals, the Salvation Army and the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
We offer a double occupancy bedroom, a place for keeping belongings, laundry facilities and showers. Volunteers from more than 15 churches, several restaurants and businesses, and dozens of individuals bring the evening meal on a rotating basis. Each weekday, our manager drives the men to job sites or an agency they need.
In 2008, we provided shelter to 120 men who spent an average of 27 nights apiece there. Roughly three-fourths of them participate in our transitional program, which allows them to stay in 90-day increments provided they sign a contract and work toward rehabilitation. They must abide by the house rules and be drug and alcohol free.
Our part-time executive director, Ayanna Bailey, and Clawson meet regularly to assess their needs and help them set goals -- most of which involve quitting drugs and alcohol, reconnecting with family and finding work.
For most, the road to homelessness is littered with bad choices, Clawson says. Homelessness doesn't discriminate, however. Some people are just one paycheck away.
"If you think you know what homelessness is, look at your neighbor, look in the mirror, look at your co-worker," Clawson said. "That's the face of America's homeless today."
The road back involves many false starts, said one client, who has been at the shelter about a month. This is his second try, and he's determined to make it.
"At The Haven, I've got peace of mind," said the 40-year-old man, who asked that his name not be used. "I needed somewhere to go. It gives me an opportunity to get a job so I can stand on my own feet."
There's camaraderie there with the other men, who understand what it's like to be homeless, he said. "We can relate to each other. It means a lot to me when I can talk to someone and they really listen."
He admits he's made mistakes and has been irresponsible. He knows drugs are wrong; he's distanced himself from friends who were a bad influence.
"That lifestyle didn't get me anywhere," he said.
He's been clean eight months and now attends church. He knows his part-time job won't pay the bills so he's hoping to stay three months or more.
"I don't want to live the way I used to live," he said. "I want to be a better person, a better father."
The Haven operates on a shoestring budget and last year provided the service for about $19 a man a night. Our operating budget mostly is funded by a fall letter campaign and a winter fundraiser on Super Bowl Sunday, which is coming up Feb. 1. The rest comes from the United Way of York County and other community supporters.
We partner with numerous agencies and churches in town. No doubt we will be relying more on each other in this dismal economy.
In the meantime, we're trying to get the word out about what we do and to thank those who support us. But our dreams for the future will have to wait for funding and a larger facility.
Until then, we're content to tackle the issues one man at a time, hoping that he can soon hold his head up and smile again.
Want to help?
Donations to The Haven Men's Shelter are tax deductible and can be sent to P.O. Box 10653, Rock Hill, SC, 29731. Our Web site is www.thehavenmensshelter.org. For tickets to the Super Bowl fundraiser on Feb. 1, contact Mary Frances Morton at 985-4014 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Sula Pettibon is a board member of The Haven Men's Shelter.