Three months ago, Karen Clute was surprised to have visitors show up in the patch of woods that she and her husband, Bob, call home.
She was welcoming, but hesitant, as she assessed the strangers who approached her tent and asked questions about her life as a homeless person in Fort Mill.
Visitors weren’t just uncommon for the Clutes, they were almost nonexistent. Sometimes, Karen and Bob Clute had gone for months at a time only speaking to each other, Karen Clute said. Food was occasionally donated, but most of what they ate was scavenged from Dumpsters behind grocery stores.
Now, things are decidedly different for the Clutes. Food and friendship have entered their lives, both in a more steady supply than ever before.
Tega Cay resident Ron Faircloth, a member of Grace Presbyterian Church, began visiting the Clutes and the other homeless residents of the Carowinds Boulevard area in January after he read about them in the Fort Mill Times.
Every Friday, Faircloth picks up the Clutes and takes them to get a shower at the Gold Hill YMCA before going to the free Community Cafe at Lake Wylie Lutheran Church for a hot meal. He also picks up and delivers meals for the other homeless residents of the area, who typically prefer to remain at their campsites.
Beyond those regular Friday visits, Faircloth will call the Clutes, who have a working cell phone, just to check on them. He’ll sometimes visit Bob Clute at his Saturday morning job at a flea market, and he stops in at other times to help with tasks that have been insurmountable for the Clutes, like hauling away the garbage that accumulated around their campsite.
In part, this is Faircloth’s way of paying back those who helped him so much as a young man, he said.
Faircloth spent much of his youth in a home for boys. The head of the home was a former coach and took Faircloth under his wing, teaching him about sports and paving the way for Faircloth to get into college on a sports scholarship.
“My whole life is based on people helping me,” Faircloth said. “So it’s very gratifying for me to help someone else.”
The Friday visits have forged a strong friendship between Faircloth and the Clutes. He brings them things he thinks will be helpful, like battery-operated lanterns for their campsite. Faircloth’s wife, Ann, makes the Clutes cookies and saves books that she thinks Karen Clute might enjoy reading.
In return, the Clutes have been gracious and grateful for all that he has done for them. They’ve even offered small gifts.
Last week, Ron Faircloth and the Clutes took what might be the biggest step forward for the homeless couple since they moved into the woods more than a year ago. With Faircloth’s help, the Clutes applied for and received food stamps. With food stamps in hand, the Clutes and Faircloth piled into the car and headed to Walmart to allow the Clutes to shop, for perhaps the first time in a year, for real groceries.
“The reward I get, I feel like I’m doing something the Lord would do walking the earth, helping someone without homes and food, although we don’t do a lot. It’s just one day a week. It’s not a big deal,” Faircloth said.
Kevin Feather of Fort Mill has made the homeless camp in Fort Mill near Bob and Karen Clute – where six men were living last week – a regular weekly stop. He donated industrial felt and a conveyer belt that can be used as insulation and weather-proof flooring at the campsites and then, when he saw the need, he began dropping off fresh eggs and batteries, as well as canned goods.
Feather, a Fort Mill resident, was baptized last week at his church in Rock Hill. He’s trying to follow what the Scripture tells him to do, he said.
“I’ve been called to help,” he said. “Some of the Scriptures I read, ‘Give and it’ll be given to you.’ It just makes me feel good to help them guys.”
Feather and Faircloth have stepped out on their own to help the homeless, but community groups have also stepped in to assist. Students in the high school youth group at St. Philip Neri were among the community members who helped the homeless, both here in Fort Mill and throughout the county. Youth group members collected more than $1,000 during the Lenten season by saving money that they would have spent on coffee, soda or other treats they gave up for Lent.
With the money, along with donations from parishioners, the youth group made “blessing bags,” bags with bottled water, packs of crackers, toothbrushes, razors and other essential items.
Serving Meals Ministry, a community group that was among the first to recognize the homeless issue in Fort Mill, have taken Donnie Bowen, a homeless man living in downtown Fort Mill, under its wing. Bowen receives a hot meal daily, as well as snacks, thanks to donations to Serving Meals Ministry that were earmarked for Bowen.
Bowen has also gone to church occasionally with community members.
The next step
In the cold winter, donations of blankets, clothing, and food came pouring in from the community for the homeless. With winter over, donations have slowed, but the faithful like Faircloth, Feather and groups like Serving Meals and Renew Our Communities, a community assistance group in York County, continue to visit the homeless.
“We have just found out their needs and try to fulfill them, with the public’s help, but the next step is just to continue to be an ear to listen,” said Mary Baker of Serving Meals Ministry.
Without a homeless shelter or central place to store donations, Baker isn’t sure how much more can be done, she added.
ROC founder Dale Dove, said helping the homeless become self-sufficient should be the end goal, but he emphasized that isn’t an easy task. Jobs and affordable housing are needed, he said, and there are other issues to consider, including drug and alcohol dependency, mental illness and disability.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it’s not easy,” he said.
Dove agreed with Baker that there needs to be a central spot for serving the needs of the homeless. Ideally, Dove said, there would be a single place that the homeless in Fort Mill could go for assessment, to determine what services they need and help them create what ROC calls a “life renewal plan.”
“If you keep letting these folks make the same decisions, very likely they’ll get the same results. We have to get beside them and love them, but not let them keep living the same way,” Dove said.
Temporary jobs that can provide immediate work are key, he added. Having a job provides a sense of self-worth, Dove said.
“People want to feel like they matter, like their life matters, whether you’re Bill Gates or you’re living in a tent,” Dove said.
Faircloth is working towards that with the Clutes. He is employing Bob Clute to do work around his home and hopes others will find odd jobs for him to do. With the food stamps and some occasional employment, the Clutes have made big strides towards independence in three months, with Faircloth as a helping hand.
Imagine if everyone in the community took time to help out, Faircloth said.
“It would be wonderful if someone could adopt each person in the area, as their own family, every week. That would so good,” he said.