There was a lot of fretting and fussing Friday morning when many of us wrenched ourselves from our warm beds to confront this winter’s coldest morning. Parents and students were anxious to find out if the school day would be called off or end early and those with a morning drive ahead wondered if the roads became a skating rink overnight.
Now imagine if you woke up that morning in a tent in the woods. Not because you enjoy roughing it, but because it’s the only refuge available.
That’s the reality for an estimated 20 or so people who have been living in the shadows of a makeshift encampment on vacant land off Carowinds Boulevard. And those are the desperate souls we know about. There’s no telling how many more homeless people in the township have lives that have been reduced to basic survival.
Apparently, the encampment hasn’t been a closely guarded secret. Officials, including sheriff’s office deputies, have humanely looked the other way rather than shoo the squatters off or have them arrested for trespassing. Others aware of this loose confederation of homeless people have helped them out by bringing food and supplies. It’s only recently, after the Fort Mill Times started running a series of stories about the encampment and other media picked up the story, that more township residents have learned about it.
The result has been predictable if you know anything about Fort Mill people and their generous hearts: An army of angels has joined the few who have been helping this group of homeless people survive, and now a stream of food and supplies has been funneled to the neediest of the needy living quietly in our midst. One circle of friends even made quilts they delivered last week.
The recent outpouring of care and compassion is not unexpected, and those who are giving should be an example for us all. Unfortunately, their efforts are not enough. Now that Fort Mill Township’s not-so-well-kept secret is out in the open, it’s time to take a collective, holistic approach to ending homelessness in our area.
Before we go any further, however, it’s important to point out that we recognize that not all of the homeless people we encountered ended up this way through no fault of their own. Yes, some are the classic example of being one paycheck away from living in the woods, but others admit being active alcoholics, for example, and it’s hard not to imagine that most are paying the price for making poor choices in life.
Should that mean they are not worthy of our help? Certainly not. And not just the sort of help that enables them to avoid dying of starvation. Indeed, there are programs across the country, many created through public-private partnerships, that address immediate needs while shepherding homeless people through an array of services designed to return those who are capable to self sufficiency. The needs can be as simple as access to showers, clean clothes and help navigating bureaucracies and as great as providing medical attention, mental health treatment, education and job training.
But first we need to find a way to provide those without a home a warm place to spend a frigid night. A place to recoup some dignity and self esteem. That’s the logical place to start.
Some of the building blocks are already in place. There are private citizens committed to helping their much less fortunate fellow humans. Now we need to get them together with elected officials from the state, county and town levels, local clergy and business leaders. To succeed, a project like this needs property, permits, social service skills, energy and, perhaps most important, money.
Few people can really understand what it’s like to be homeless without actually experiencing it, and it’s a sure bet that it’s even worse than you can imagine. For all of us fortunate enough to have homes and basic needs fulfilled, let’s spend more time thinking about what life would be like if we didn’t have these things and what we can do to help lift our afflicted brothers and sisters out their daily nightmare.