Some buried themselves under huge blankets and went to sleep. Others sat around a plastic table, playing the card game rummy. A few sat quietly on their foldout cots, eating pieces of cake and crackers.
A glimpse inside Rock Hill's new emergency winter shelter one night this week revealed a collection of men relieved to escape the cold for a few hours. And a closer look at the problems that landed them here illuminate why homelessness is a complex problem to solve.
Before, the concrete-walled basement of the Salvation Army building on Charlotte Avenue was used as a storage room for donated Christmas toys. Now, it's the place that local homeless advocates hope can serve as a shelter of last resort for people with nowhere else to go.
The center attracted eight men and women on each of its first two nights. Organizers expect between 10 and 15 people a night as word spreads.
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'I might be OK'
One of the first to arrive was a 17-year-old, who left home after an argument a few days earlier.
"I was staying at the Waffle House, the Super Bi-Lo, till they kicked me out," he said. "Then I just walked around the rest of the night."
The teen said he suffers from attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and Tourette's syndrome. He has an appointment with a rehabilitation specialist, and with help from his case worker, he hopes to find work at a grocery store soon.
"A month from now, I might be pretty good," he said shortly before going to sleep.
While the 17-year-old is an example of a short-term situational case, others wind up at the warming center with problems that have stretched on for longer.
Six weeks ago, Tony Robinson was staying at The Haven, a 14-bed shelter on Archive Street about 10 minutes away. Then he went south to Chester, where he spent a few nights at a Christian brotherhood called Turning Point. Neither place worked out, and he wound up here.
"I ain't changed from when I talked to you before," Robinson said. "Just trying to find the right avenue to run on."
After originally planning to open only when temperatures dipped below freezing, the warming center has changed its policy to open when temperatures reach 38 degrees.
A few early surprises
"The trend is, there hasn't been a trend," said Lora Holladay, a local United Way coordinator helping manage the center. "There's no one easy diagnosis to say, 'Here's what it is. They run the gamut from things that can be solved fairly easily to things that are more chronic."
During the first two nights, police dropped off people who, before now, would try to get themselves arrested so they could spend the night in a heated place: jail.
More women than expected have shown up, prompting organizers to consider either setting up a separate room or offering hotel vouchers.
At 4:30 each morning, the men have left their beds to get in line at local temporary work agencies, Holladay said. They get there early to have the best chance at jobs.
Holladay said interviews she conducts nightly with guests shed more light on the various needs. When the shelter closes in March, organizers hope to have a solid understanding of the best way to move forward.
By that time, guests such as the 17-year-old and Robinson will probably have moved on. Organizers don't know how many others with their own challenges will have followed.
WANT TO HELP?
Organizers hope to get enough churches and individuals to start a nightly meal rotation at the warming center. To get involved, call the United Way of York County at 324-2735.
Pillow cases, blankets, twin sheets, small toiletry items and boxed snacks also are needed.