Steve McDole reads as Chuck Thomas, center, and Tony Robinson eat dinner at The Haven in Rock Hill.
Steve McDole reads as Chuck Thomas, center, and Tony Robinson eat dinner at The Haven in Rock Hill.

Inside a dimly lit room in south Rock Hill one night last week, Steve McDole stretched out on his bed in preparation for what he called the highlight of his day.

Waiting for him, propped open across the mattress, was the book "You Can Run But You Can't Hide," by Duane "Dog" Chapman.

Judging by the grin on his face as he opened to a new page, it was hard to tell that McDole was about to spend another night in a homeless shelter.

Maybe that's because a warm bed and a nighttime habit other than booze represent a step up for the 40-year-old Florida native. Before he caught a ride to The Haven three weeks ago, McDole was spending his nights huddled under a blanket in some woods near Chester.

Now, he's on the verge of becoming what local advocates for the homeless hope will be a lasting success story. On Monday, McDole expects to hear back about a cement-mixing job in Fort Mill that he applied for with the help of social workers.

"I ain't going back to prison," McDole said. "I've been there three times. It was enough. I'm ready to straighten my life out."

No permanent shelter in place

This is what the front lines of the battle against homelessness in Rock Hill looked like on a recent weeknight. And it's the kind of example advocates hope to build on as they press forward in addressing a problem many say has gone overlooked for too long.

"They just need guidance and somebody to let them know they're not alone," said Mike Clawson, hired earlier this year to be resident manager at The Haven, a 14-bed shelter on Archive Street viewed as a temporary fix. "I'd like to have a bigger place so I could reach more."

A year ago around this time, The Haven's board of directors hoped they were close to delivering on Clawson's wish. They scouted several locations for a permanent home with space for more beds as well as services for drug and alcohol treatment and job assistance.

Their plans haven't worked out. As winter approaches, York County has no permanent men's shelter, and the number of homeless people identified in a recent survey outpaces the available space.

"I knew we'd be further along, but I really didn't think we'd have a solution," said Gina Amato, director of emergency services for the local Red Cross chapter and among the city's most outspoken homeless advocates. "There's no financial backing. There's still no location. There's no building. There's a lot of interested people. But that's where it kind of seems to stay."

Making some progress

Others point to a number of advances, notably an agreement that volunteers and agencies signed this year to work together more closely. But they still don't know exactly what direction they want to take.

"Things are moving in baby steps, but there's been enough progress that I think we can expect more to come," said Stephen Cox, a member of the Catawba Area Coalition for the Homeless. "I don't think the issue will just become dormant, like it was for a long time."

An encouraging step for supporters appears close.

Working through the United Way of York County, organizers are finalizing arrangements for a "warming center" that would open this winter in the Salvation Army basement on nights when temperatures dip below freezing.

"It's not just the right thing to do," said Rock Hill lawyer Herb Hamilton, chairman of The Haven's board. "It's the economical thing to do. It's just more efficient to figure out a way to treat these folks than it is to deal with them through the judicial system or DSS -- or the hospital for that matter."

The center is projected to hold up to 48 people, with each guest costing $7.60 a night. By comparison, a night in the already-crowded Moss Justice Detention Center costs about $40, county officials say.

Such an addition would ease burdens on The Haven, where the 14 beds are housed in closet-sized rooms. Seven other beds for men are scattered across the county, according to United Way figures.

Permanent facility in future?

Though they're not saying much about it publicly, advocates view the warming center as a vehicle that can convince the city and county governments to get behind a more ambitious undertaking -- namely, a permanent shelter.

First, they have to demonstrate the need and show they are capable of doing something about it. Some predict it will take another two to three years to reach that point, but the hope is to get public funding from the city and county once a plan is in place.

"When you go to council," Cox said, "you need to be able to say, 'OK, we're going to have a facility that's going to be able to serve this many people with this range of services and this is how much it's going to cost. I don't think we're quite there yet. I don't think we've quite articulated what it is we want."

A crucial question that remains is where to put a permanent shelter. Earlier possibilities, such as the Army Reserve Center on Cherry Road, prompted not-in-my-backyard reactions from neighbors.

"We kicked around ideas, we thought about places, and every time we did, we ran into the same thing: NIMBY," said Ray Koterba, the city's director of Housing & Neighborhood Services. "It's understandable and unfortunate at the same time. One location after another was mentioned, and then no."

Instead of taking on neighbors in what could be an ugly, protracted rezoning battle, some believe the smarter choice might be to build a new facility from scratch.

The thinking points to somewhere in central Rock Hill, possibly near the Salvation Army on Charlotte Avenue or an existing service agency, but not in the middle of a neighborhood.

"Perhaps the wiser strategy would be to find a place that would be acceptable to everyone," Koterba said. "Is there such a place? I hope so. By having the warming center, we can breathe a little easy now, and we can begin to look for it."

Making do with what's in place

Back at The Haven last week, an older-looking bearded man wearing a bulky black winter coat walked in off the street, seemingly drunk and out of sorts. Clawson got up and took the man into a bedroom to get him settled down.

It's a scene that plays out often at the house on Archive Street. On this night, McDole stayed at the kitchen table, barely seeming to notice the commotion.

"I slept out there a couple of nights before I got here. It got pretty cold," he said. "Hopefully Monday, I'll have a job."

How does the homelessness issue fit into the broader picture?

"This is just my theory, but Rock Hill was a small textile town for a long time. This growth is relatively new to us. When it was a small community, certain smaller groups like a Rotary Club could take an issue and really work with it.

We've gotten so big now. We have to change our focus in many different areas, and have our decision-makers weigh in, in some way. In the last two to three years, our community has really begun wrestling with that."

-- City Councilman John Gettys, anti-poverty advocate who led recent effort to start a public transit program in Rock Hill

What needs to happen to keep progress moving ahead?

"When you look at the names that are on lots of these boards, I think what you would find is a committed group of citizens in Rock Hill. I do think you can add to that critical mass.

That's where I think you're going to get sustained momentum. People don't check out of volunteering a lot. It's just hard to get in."

-- Chad Echols, past board president of Interfaith Hospitality Network, local churches that care for homeless families

Are programs easier to manage once they get up and running?

"We still struggle with it. There is the crutch that every nonprofit hits. We have our grants, we have our donors. But we still have to figure out what we need and then go ask for it.

Any nonprofit you ask would tell you the same thing. We have our support base and they will always be there for us. But if we want to grow our program, then we have to grow our support base."

-- Lila Anna Sauls, director of St. Lawrence Place in Columbia, a transitional housing project for homeless families started in 1989