FORT MILL TOWNSHIP — Karen Clute sits in front of the tent she calls home, chopping red peppers, onions and mushrooms on a piece of cardboard. To her left is a plastic bucket filled with rain water where she washes her clothes and dishes each day. Scattered around the outside of the tent are empty bottles, jugs and overturned crates.
The interior of the tent is a nest of browned pillows and blankets, a nest to combat the cold air outside.
Its lunchtime, and shes preparing vegetables for chili that shell cook over an open fire.
Clute, 45, has been living in the woods off Carowinds Boulevard for a year with her husband Bob. The vegetables were fished from a dumpster the day before.
They throw out vegetables with bad spots, and we salvage them, she said.
The couple has been homeless off and on for 15 years.
You have a job, lose it, and this is where you go.
The Clutes arent alone in the woods.
There are many makeshift campsites in the area, inhabited by homeless people who have lived there anywhere from a month to as much as four years or more. Theyre just yards away from the parking lots of hotels that fill with vacationers visiting the Carowinds amusement park in the summertime, but they are the invisible residents of the township.
Lester Skip Frankenfield and his dog Cassie have called a rusted minivan in the woods home for nearly four years.
The minivan serves as Frankenfields bedroom. Around the van Frankenfield has set up a campsite that is as much a home as a patch of woods can be. Tarps cover a kitchen area where he cooks on a gas stove with food he gets with food stamps or donations. Next to his stove is his pantry, a crate that contains spices and seasonings hes collected over the years.
Before becoming homeless, Frankenfield worked for a Charlotte builders supply company. When the recession hit, he was downsized. Then, three family members died within a month of each other, and Frankenfield became depressed. He turned to alcohol to help him cope, and before long he was drinking two bottles of wine and four bottles of liquor a week.
That was just for one week. I knew that was no good, he said.
Not long after that, Frankenfield became separated from his wife, lost his home and was homeless.
Since then, he has been treated for both depression and alcohol abuse and, My life is going in the right direction, he said.
Though he lives in the woods with little more than a tarp to cover him in the rain, Frankenfield counts himself as a lucky man. He does receive some government assistance disability benefits and food stamps.
There are people worse off than me, he said. Ive learned to be grateful for what I have.
Frankenfield keeps his eye on the comings and goings of the other homeless residents in the area and offers them help when he can.
The Rev. Roald King, head of Feed the Hungry, a group that helps the homeless in the area, said Frankenfield frequently helps him identify who is living in the area and is happy to help him distribute food, water, and other supplies.
Sometimes I think its my lot in life to help people better themselves, Frankenfield said.
Frankenfield estimates there are at least 20 people living in the woods in the Carowinds Boulevard area. King said he believes that number is as high as 100.
Lee James is a newcomer to the area and one of the people Frankenfield has taken under his wing. James has been homeless for four years but came to Fort Mill just a month ago by hitchhiking.
Like Frankenfield, James is an Army veteran. He has worked off and on in construction and, when he can get a ride, tries to pick up jobs by hanging out around Lowes and Home Depot. Lately he hasnt had much luck because he hasnt been able to shower or shave.
People dont have much respect, James said. They judge by the cover, not the book.
When asked how he became homeless, he answers in a straight forward manner:
Maam, I drink a lot, Ill be honest, he said.
The only source of income James has is panhandling, what he calls flying a sign.
James has a singular focus to get an ID card, which would open the door to government assistance.
He cant get an ID card, he said, because he doesnt have his birth certificate or Social Security card. He does have his Army discharge papers and is trying to get a ride to the nearest Veterans Affairs office to ask for their assistance.
James frustration with the system is evident. He talks about walking into the DMV and how he feels looked down on by the people working there.
It makes you confused, and you get madder and get kicked back down. Then you just learn to live with it, he said.
Its a problem the homeless often face, King said. Without an ID card, the doors to government assistance are usually closed.
But in order to get an ID, the person has to first have proof of identity and date of birth, King said. A birth certificate fits that bill but costs $50 to get a copy.
If you give someone who lives in the have nots $50, they arent going to get a piece of paper, he said.
Proof of residency is also required to get an ID, something the homeless do not have unless they are living in a shelter.
Asking for help from his family is out of the question, James said.
He takes a deep breath and begins crying as he talks about his adult son and daughter.
They just think Im a truck driver, James said. I cant tell them whats going on. I cant.
This aint no joke
Clute, Frankenfield and James were surprised to have visitors last week. They are typically left alone, they said, except for King and sheriffs deputies who check on them and drop off food and water now and then.
The property they are on is owned by York County. Technically, King said, the homeless people living there are trespassing. But the trespassing laws arent enforced, he said, because where are they going to go? The streets? There is no homeless shelter in Fort Mill.
Both Frankenfield and James say many people arent aware that homelessness is an issue around the township. They walk to a gas station on Carowinds Boulevard every day to get a newspaper or to use a sink to freshen up, and sometimes encounter someone who asks what their situation is.
I tell people Im homeless, and theyre like, No, youre not. I say, I wish that was true, Frankenfield said.
This is real, Frankenfield said, looking around his campsite, covered in tarps to protect him from rain and wind. This aint no joke.
Thats for sure, James said.
Editors note: This is Part I of a series examining the reality of homeless people in Fort Mill Township.
For Part II, click here.