Strangers help York woman, boy found living in makeshift tent

adys@heradonline.comAugust 18, 2011 

  • Call White Oak apartments at 803-684-9826, or write to Shelly Risk, White Oak apartments, 2 South Pacific Ave., York, S.C. 29745.

— Tuesday marked the fifth day 51-year-old Janice Dowd and her 7-year-old grandson slept in a tent in woods beside a York shopping center.

Three of those nights were filled with rain, in a place police say is frequented not just by mosquitoes, but sometimes by vagrants and drunks.

Police and the state Department of Social Services investigated after a woman told police she saw the pair living in the woods.

By Wednesday afternoon - after quick action by strangers who had never met Dowd until Tuesday, when they spotted her walking down a sidewalk toward that lean-to that she was living in - Dowd had moved bed and clothes, games and food, into an apartment in Clover.

"Nobody should have to live like that, and, by God, if I have anything to say about it, it will never happen again," said Ken Thomas, a 72-year-old retired military veteran who saw Dowd near her tent Tuesday and immediately opened up his home for her to sleep Tuesday night.

"A granny and a child out in a tent. That's not the America I know."

Until Wednesday, Dowd had been one of the people the world often does not see - the poor who become homeless when the money runs out.

And this time one of the poor was a child whose first day of school should have been Wednesday.

"I was saved by angels, the police and these people who helped me," Dowd said. "Everybody has been so nice to us. I never wanted to live in any tent, but we had nowhere else to go."

A woman walking on Liberty Street near the Bi-Lo grocery store around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday called York police. She told officers that Dowd and a child were staying in a tent in woods west of the shopping center.

Officers searched the woods and found the tent inside plastic sheeting, with "clothes hanging on string tied between two trees," according to a police report. Dowd and her grandson were inside.

Police immediately took the child into emergency protective custody and took both to the police department, Police Chief Andy Robinson said. There, they questioned Dowd and determined she had legal custody of her grandson.

Dowd, unemployed, listed in the police report as "homeless," then told the police what politicians never tell of in America. How someone ends up living in the woods - this time with a child.

Dowd said she has no job, is fighting for disability benefits from ailments, and lives off food stamps and $802 a month in federal benefits checks she gets for herself and her grandson.

Dowd said she has raised the boy, whom The Herald is not identifying because of his age, since he was six weeks old.

By July, she had fallen behind on the $600 rent and $900 in utilities at a small house near York Middle School, she told police.

Dowd and her grandson stayed with family for a while, then with a friend in York who lived in an apartment near the shopping center. But she could no longer stay with the friend - the same woman who reported to police that Dowd was living in the tent - because Dowd's name was not on the lease.

Dowd told police she had paid the security deposit and first month's rent for the Clover apartment, about 10 miles away, but didn't have enough money to turn on utilities - so she could not move in.

On Friday, Dowd told police, she set up living quarters in the woods, including a donated tent from a woman she knew from a nearby church. She used plastic sheets she took from a Dumpster behind the shopping center as cover. She received some donated food.

Dowd said her friend let her and her grandson bathe at her apartment.

Officers took the child into emergency custody Tuesday, the police report showed, because there was no proper shelter, the grandson is on medications, the location of the tent in the woods and the lack of a toilet and place to wash.

"I had nowhere else to go," Dowd said.

Police called in Social Services on Tuesday, and a case worker met with officers, Dowd and the boy at the police department.

Dowd was told there would be an emergency hearing on custody Tuesday afternoon in Rock Hill, and her grandson was taken into emergency foster care, according to police.

Dowd has no criminal record according to the State Law Enforcement Division. She was not charged with a crime, Robinson said, because "she was doing what she thought was best for the boy," and police did not see any crime had taken place.

The boy appeared to be unhurt, Dowd had his medications with her, and she fully explained the situation to officers, Robinson said. Dowd "genuinely cares for the child," he said.

"It appears it is a case where she didn't know where else to turn," Robinson said. "I would hope that anyone in York who is in this situation calls us, and we can find the agency to help them before it gets to this point."

Dowd's daughter, who is living in Hawaii and is not the mother of the boy in the tent, was called by police and DSS. She immediately paid the utility deposits on the Clover apartment so the lights and gas could be turned on and Dowd could move in, police said.

The daughter in Hawaii did not know that her mother had become homeless, Robinson said.

Dowd went back to get belongings from the tent Tuesday after leaving the police department. That's when Thomas, the 72-year-old living nearby in a senior community, spotted her.

Thomas rushed to get Shannon Whitesides, a York County Council on Aging social worker who helps older residents in York's White Oak senior apartments, and Shelly Risk, the White Oak manager.

"She was crying when I met her, scared," Whitesides said. "I just talked to her to see what was going on."

Thomas invited Dowd into his home to clean up before the custody hearing later that day, and Whitesides agreed to go to court with Dowd.

Risk started calling around to try to find more help, collecting beds and clothes and groceries. More donations came in, from money to food to a Superman book bag for when Dowd's grandson goes to school.

"Her grandson went to school with my own little boy last year in York," Risk said. "We had to help these people. She is not a bad person. She cares about that child."

In court Tuesday, Whitesides guaranteed that she and others would help Dowd move in and make sure that her home was ready for an eventual DSS inspection.

Wednesday, Whitesides, Risk and Thomas did help Dowd move into her apartment in Clover after Mike Sexton, manager of the Clover Housing Authority, presented Dowd with her keys.

"She has people now to help her so this never happens again," said Whitesides. "It is clear she loves this boy and he loves her."

Whether the boy is allowed to come back to live with Dowd, or when, is now up to a judge because the boy remained in emergency custody after Tuesday's court hearing, DSS officials said Wednesday.

The police report from the incident states that the boy's "status with living with Janice would be reviewed when Janice provided proof of residency."

DSS officials confirmed an investigation is ongoing but declined to give specifics of the case because of confidentiality reasons.

In any child emergency protective custody case, the first course of action is to find a safe place for a child after he is taken into emergency custody, DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus said.

Any guardian would be subject to a review of finances and any other means of support to ensure the child's continued safety, Matheus said, and monitoring of the home could be ordered.

Until then, a little boy who slept in a tent during thunderstorms is safe in a foster home. So is his grandmother, Janice Dowd, who now has a place to sleep - not in the woods.

She stood in the doorway Wednesday and said two words that mean everything to her and her grandson now.

"My home."

Want to help?

Call White Oak apartments at 803-684-9826, or write to Shelly Risk, White Oak apartments, 2 South Pacific Ave., York, S.C. 29745.

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