Mired in debt, he wishes for a way out - 'They get you tied up in a web'

This is how bad life has gotten for Harry Brown: He lives with his parents in Chester, takes anxiety pills to avoid panic attacks and can barely hear out of his right ear.

And those, he says, aren't the worst of his problems.

The 58-year-old former textile worker also is buried in debt, owing loan payments to more lenders than he can keep track of. He owes about $1,800, and though that's not an eye-catching figure, Brown laments that he has already paid more than $2,000 in interest and fees.

"I dug the hole myself," he said Tuesday afternoon. "You think you're paying one debt off, and you get stuck with another one. It's like they get you tied up in a web you can't get of."

Critics of the payday loan industry point to Brown as another sad case study in a trend playing out across South Carolina. An estimated 38 lenders operate in Rock Hill -- up from 11 just six years ago -- providing quick cash both to locals and customers from North Carolina, where the practice is banned.

A downward spiral

For Brown, moving out of his own house was another indignity in a year full of them.

A year ago, he began renting the house in southern York County to earn money to pay off his debts.

This isn't what Brown envisioned when he retired in 2000 from the Celanese plant east of Rock Hill, where he sanded floors for nearly three decades. Using his retirement money, Brown built the house off S.C. 72. Then, he bought modestly priced cars for his two children.

Months later, Brown was driving home from taking his daughter to school when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed. The repair costs, coupled with car payments and medical bills, set in motion the events that landed him here.

As Brown talked Tuesday in the afternoon heat, his cell phone rang in his pocket.

"It's probably one of these check-cashing places," he said. "They call me all the time."

He pulled out the phone and looked at the screen. "Yep," he said, stuffing the phone back in his pants.

His greatest regret is the impulsive choice he made late last year. Driving down Cherry Road one afternoon, he spotted a loan agency offering no-hassle cash advances.

"I said, 'Well, I'm going to stop and see what it's about,'" he recalled. Brown left with $300.

"It's a tune that is being sung all across the country," said Debbie Hayworth, community impact director for the United Way of York County. "Which is one reason why Georgia and North Carolina said, 'No thank you.' In South Carolina ... we're losing a lot of people in the cracks."

On Tuesday, Brown contacted Hayworth and other agencies that help people in debt. Later that afternoon, as he drove away from his house, Brown stopped his car beside the road to share a few final thoughts.

"It's a crying shame," he said, swatting away a mosquito, "to have a great big house like that, and you can't even stay in it."