Sleeping under a tarp, on a cot next to a space heater, may not sound like anyone’s idea of home, unless it’s the closest thing to home you have.
For almost two weeks, up to two dozen homeless men and women have spent their nights in the loading area behind the Renew Our Community building (ROC) on East White Street, with a hanging sheet of plastic their only protection from the elements.
For at least a couple more nights, that’s where they will stay, until rules and regulations require them to go somewhere else – wherever that somewhere else may be.
The homeless services center was told Wednesday morning its clients would have to find another place to live. The temporary dwelling under the tarp was in violation of several Rock Hill building codes, and the ROC’s lease agreement with York County, which owns the building, does not allow for people to stay there overnight.
“The current zoning at the site does not provide for group housing and the facility is not set up to safely provide housing,” city spokeswoman Katie Quinn said in a statement. “The use of outdoor heating equipment in an enclosed area surrounded with plastic creates an unsafe environment. There are also local concerns ... regarding after-hours staffing and security at the site.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, those who had found a temporary place to stay were packing up to head somewhere else – and anyone lucky enough to have a job to go to might have come back to find their possessions locked up for the night inside ROC’s headquarters.
“They can come claim it in the morning, but without a sleeping bag, they won’t even have a place to sleep,” said Iris Smalls-Hubbard, ROC Central’s director, when it looked like her clients wouldn’t get a reprieve. “I’m trying to get one more night, to give them the opportunity to find somewhere to stay.”
Before the end of the day, ROC staff members were told the encampment could stay, but only until the end of the week. They had to remove the space heaters that codes officials feared would cause a fire hazard.
“We’re sensitive to the fact that they’re trying to help people,” Quinn said. “But they know that they have to come up with an alternate solution very soon.”
The ROC set up the encampment last week after the area’s warming stations – temporary winter shelters set up to keep the homeless out of the cold – closed. Once spring arrived, those shelters began to shut down, but it was still cold out at night, and most of those in the shelters had nowhere else to turn.
“Last year, I stayed here a couple times,” Nicole Bailey said of the area behind ROC. “Even though it’s a ‘no trespass’ area, people would sneak and sleep.”
Bailey said she’s been unable to find work because of her arrest record, and without an income she can’t afford a regular place to sleep. “It’s scary out here, especially for a female,” she said.
This year, ROC decided to help out its clients in the transition from winter to spring by hanging a tarp from the roof around an area of cots and tables for anyone who felt like they needed a place to stay. The center removed locks a pair of restrooms nearby for its overnight guests.
“Dale (Dove, the ROC’s founder) came out and did all this in one night. Me and a couple other guys here helped him out,” said Gary Brack. “Then when the wind got stronger, we did it again.”
After being injured in a car accident, Brack says he got hooked on pain killers while waiting to be approved for disability payments; he spent a month in one of Rock Hill’s warming shelters before he landed at the ROC.
“We average probably 20 a night, give or take. Three or four might come in overnight,” Brack said. “It’s awesome what they’ve done here. Without it, we would be out in the weather with nothing to sleep on.”
“This has been a blessing for me,” Bailey said, “Everybody looks out for each other, and someone who’s a stranger to all of us brings us something to eat.”
The city pointed out in its response that it supports several efforts to provide affordable housing. The Haven shelter recently went through the city’s zoning process to build a new group home in the Albright Road area, while the ROC set up its temporary shelter without seeking approval.
While acknowledging the shelter is a compliance violation, Smalls-Hubbard said it was meant to be a temporary solution to a real problem.
“We knew they were going to sleep back there, and we couldn’t let them freeze,” she said. “How can you tell the homeless they’re going to be even more homeless? If they sleep in a doorway, they’ll be arrested.”
Smalls-Hubbard said the area has seen a spike in the homeless problem. During the winter period a year ago, she said the ROC served seven women who slept overnight in warming shelters. That number shot up to 20 this past winter.
As the deadline to move loomed, Lawrence Stevenson sat on his cot dejected, worrying how losing the bed that “at least let me get some sleep” would affect his part-time job at Rock Hill’s vocational rehabilitation center.
“Maybe I won’t even go back to work until I get settled,” he said, even though the health insurance from his job is finally allowing him to see an eye doctor for his vision problems.
Nearby, Norman Pye seemed almost serene about losing his place.
“If you love God every day on the inside, this is just part of the storm,” Pye said. “You just have to accept it and move on.”
In the end, the city agreed to allow the shelter to stay up temporarily. York County Manager Bill Shanahan said despite the violation of ROC’s lease terms, the county would defer to the city on the issue.
“We’re going to have to sit down with them, Rock Hill and York County, to figure out something we can do for them,” Shanahan said.
Brad Hall, another shelter resident, said he hopes the different authorities arguing over his sleeping place can work together as well as he and his bunkmates try to.
“Everybody here tries to get along. Everybody helps each other,” he said. “So why can’t the city help us?”
South Carolina’s annual point-in-time count identified 5,354 homeless persons on a given night in January 2015, with about 35 percent of those interviewed labeled as unsheltered homeless. That was a six percent increase over last year and compares with 5,040 homeless persons identified in the 2014 point-in-time count.
Source: South Carolina Coalition for the Homeless