York County needs more warming centers for the homeless

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comFebruary 3, 2013 

— Meet Jo.

He’s 58. He’s from Indiana. He drove trucks for a living. His brother said he might be cursed. And, the only indication he has of his birthplace is a crumpled piece of his birth certificate no larger than a dollar bill cut in half that says his mother gave birth in April and in York County.

He keeps it in his wallet, along with his voter’s registration card.

His daily activities include eating food prepared by an assembly of volunteers, sleeping in a warm bed and walking his German shepherd-mix Christy, who he leaves to guard the tent in which he lives on Porter Road when there’s no sleet or freezing rain.

During the coldest months of the year, Jo and about 22 other men in a similar situation are full-time residents at a warming center operated by Rock Hill’s Bethel United Methodist Church, just off Dave Lyle Boulevard.

The United Way of York County operates two warming centers, one in partnership with Bethel on Curtis Street. The other one, the Hope Street House, serves 14 women and children full time, not including the people who occasionally go to the center for a hot meal and refuge from harsh weather.

But the United Way’s community investment director, Lora Holladay – who said she seeks to “work myself out of a job” so people like Jo can have better lives – says two centers no longer are enough.

The need, she insists, is too great and services addressing it should extend to the eastern part of the county, covering the Interstate 77 corridor that touches Fort Mill, Tega Cay and Lake Wylie.

“That’s where a lot of folks migrate from other areas because of the major thoroughfare,” Holladay said, adding that many have come to the Charlotte region with hopes they’ll find work in “a booming area.”

They aren’t.

“There’s a group of folks on that side on the county that don’t have access to come down to the warming center in Rock Hill,” she said. “I think it’s safe to say there’s a need that’s been demonstrated on that side of the county.”

Starting Jan. 24, volunteers took to the woods and searched under bridges and overpasses to count the county’s unsheltered homeless as part of an effort by the South Carolina Homeless Coalition to tally the state’s homeless population.

On the first night, they found 48 people, Holladay said.

“That was the highest number of people I’ve seen” in one evening count, she said.

The more people who are counted, the better the chance the county will receive much-needed funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 2011, volunteers counted 185 homeless people, a decrease from the 236 they counted in 2009, according to data collected by the Midlands Area Consortium for the Homeless.

Results of this year’s count won’t be released for another couple of weeks.

Open doors, open hearts

About four years ago, Bethel United Methodist Church realized unused space in the church could accommodate a larger men’s shelter, said Emily Sutton, Bethel’s pastor.

Before, the United Way had used the basement of the Salvation Army building to house men in the winter. That space is now used for women and children.

Bethel’s members follow instructions found in Matthew 25, a passage in the Bible that encourages Christians to serve Jesus Christ by serving the needy, Sutton said.

The church pays for the center’s lights and water. Sunday school rooms have been converted into bedrooms. Volunteers, who cook and serve meals, also buy detergent and wash the men’s bed sheets and clothes at a Laundromat.

When the center opened in November – a month earlier than in the past – 13 men came in for shelter. Sutton, new to Rock Hill, admitted she was surprised.

Before moving here six months ago, she and her family lived in Columbia, where she saw homelessness prevalent in the downtown area. She didn’t expect to see the same in Rock Hill.

“In downtown Rock Hill, you wouldn’t imagine…you would think everybody that’s homeless would be in Charlotte, not Rock Hill,” she said.

No one solution

The problem of homelessness, Holladay said, is “multifaceted” and without a one-size-fits-all solution.

Data collected in 2009 showed that 77 of the homeless counted in York County were under 17, 69 were single men, 33 were single women, 66 were domestic violence victims, 13 were veterans, 25 had substance abuse issues and 23 self-reported having a mental illness. Demographic breakdown showing gender and age of the people counted in 2011 wasn’t available.

But these are only people considered homeless under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition, which categorizes them as: people living on the streets, staying in an emergency or transitional shelter, living in substandard housing not fit for human habitation, temporarily living in a hotel or motel, or staying in a hospital or psychiatric hospital without a home to go to after they’re discharged.

Some clients of the warming center work full time but have lost their housing and are working to save up, Holladay said. Others, like Jo, have lost both their jobs and homes.

When he was a truck driver, Jo made frequent stops in Rock Hill. He liked the area so much that he bought a house on Walnut Street.

In 2006, the house went into foreclosure and Jo, “stranded,” went to the streets and found the warming center.

“It’s nice staying here,” he said about his seasonal home of at least five years. “Everything is nice.”

What wasn’t so nice were the streets more than a week ago, when ice blanketed much of York County and had Jo searching for a warm place to stay after a lot of public places, like the county library, closed for most of the day.

Without reliable transportation, he’s unable to find another job. He’s tried the county’s Access Ride-To-Work vans, but even that can become burdensome for Jo, whose wallet last week was bereft of dollar bills.

About the buses, Holladay said, “it’s great” unless, like Jo, “you don’t have $2.”

10-year goals

Much of the money for the United Way’s efforts to combat homelessness come from federal grants.

In 2009, Holladay asked city and county leaders to help craft a plan looking at the big picture of homelessness and find ways to deal with it. After hosting summits, church forums and interviewing the homeless, organizers presented a 10-year master plan to prevent factors that cause homelessness, help with employment and encourage the community’s involvement.

Since 2010, when the plan went into effect, officials have made progress, Holladay said.

The United Way has received more than $1.2 million in grants, allowing it to create more than 180 new housing units throughout the county, including residential units in Pilgrim’s Inn; mental health units at Keystone Substance Abuse Center and Catawba Mental Health; and the creation of Housing First, a program that places homeless families in apartments or rental homes and pays their rent for a year while family members get their education or help with finding a job.

Last year, Housing First helped 60 families, Holladay said.

“It’s marathon work,” Holladay said. “It’s not a sprint. It’s little victories here, little victories there.”

Ray Koterba, Rock Hill’s housing and neighborhood services director who co-chaired a homelessness steering committee with Holladay, said a trip to Minneapolis, Minn., a city that created a model plan in dealing with homelessness, helped organizers adopt “best practices” for the county.

“We saw that we needed to get more people connected,” he said. Organizers hired a consultant who helped with writing grant proposals to bring money into the county and bolster services.

Combing the woods in search of the homeless wasn’t anything new to Koterba, a pastor and former board member for The Haven’s Men Shelter in Rock Hill. He recalled meeting a veteran who lived in a junkyard and suffered from mental health issues. He didn’t want to go home or reunite with his family.

“It just broke my heart,” said Koterba, who, as a veteran himself, said he’s witnessed several Vietnam-era veterans struggle with reintegrating into society. Many of them, he said, end up on the streets.

“I’m afraid there’s a good number of them still there,” he said.

When the numbers for 2009’s homeless population came in, Koterba said he wasn’t surprised at all.

“To think Rock Hill was exempt from it...I knew better than that,” he said, adding that he expected there would be more.

“Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. Other communities, he said, have worked on plans with aims to completely “end” homelessness.

York County’s plan, he said, “is a plan to deal with homelessness.

“It’s not going to go away; I wish it would.”

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