FORT MILL — Donnie Bowen, 48, sits hunched over on a bench in downtown Fort Mill. Hes 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.
He admits that he looks a little frightening to strangers.
But I wont bite, he jokes.
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 outdoors.
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 problematic. Some people take advantage of Bowen by paying very little for a days work, said Julie Faile, and other people will pay him with cheap liquor.
He just takes whatever they will give him, she said.
I just want people to be happy, he said.
Living on the streets in Fort Mill
On a recent Saturday the temperature was 25 degrees. Bowen sat on a bench behind Kimbrells 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 Bowens angels. He plugs it in behind Kimbrells and sits on the bench near the loading dock.
If it werent for them, Id freeze to death, Bowen said.
He is part of our Kimbrells 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 that people didnt always look beyond those issues to see the kind hearted man behind them.
Those problems didnt mean my grandfather wasnt kind hearted, she said. 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 that are wonderful human beings inside.
Hunched over on his bench, Bowen doesnt immediately give off a welcoming air. But a stranger calls out a friendly hello in his direction, and Bowen cracks a big smile and motions towards the blanket.
Its cold out here tonight. Come sit down. Get warmed up, he said.
Bowen has a hard time explaining just how he became homeless. He drinks frequently during the day and his stories often meander with no conclusion. For sure, there is an ex-wife, a girlfriend who had a tragic accident, alcoholism and joblessness that all played a role. At least those are consistent elements of his past that he shares.
Although Bowen says that he has no family living nearby, police say they believe he has one relative in the Fort Mill area, although none appear to be helping him on a regular basis.
Bowen sleeps at night on a patch of concrete. He has a few blankets but owns little else in the world. He cant carry his things around all day and doesnt have a home base where he can store anything.
His teeth are giving him problems one fell out last week but he has no dental care available. 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 theyve been stolen, he says.
Other than meals from Ramsey, the Failes and Baker, Bowen is left to get food in a way Id rather not say. Ive just learned to survive, he said.
The ways hes had to survive are shameful, Bowen said.
Im 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.
Youre not trash, David Faile assures him. Youre a human being, just like all of us.
Bowen hasnt 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 and laughs, remembering the look on the face of the man emptying the dumpster when he realized someone was inside it.
Bowens eyes fill with tears again. This time, its because hes laughing.
I said, Whoa, man, whoa! Im in here! Bowen said.
Homeless in Fort Mill
Major Bryan Zachary, public information officer for the 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 will be arrested for public disorderly conduct, being grossly intoxicated or trespassing in town parks, but generally, He doesnt create a problem, Zachary said.
Officers keep an eye on Bowen, Zachary said, by checking on him when its cold and stopping to be sure he is OK 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, its obvious its a choice he makes to be in that position. But hes not breaking the law.
Asking Bowen what he needs becomes a circular discussion.
Well, what do you need? Id like to help you, Bowen said.
He will not ask for help. In the year the Failes have been helping him, hes never asked for a thing, they said.
Bowen doesnt like to talk about needing assistance, but its apparent that 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 also 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.