FORT MILL TOWNSHIP — More than 50 community members and leaders gathered at Grace Presbyterian Church to hear about ways they can help the growing homeless population in Fort Mill Township.
Speakers from the United Way, Pilgrim’s Inn, Renew Our Community (ROC) and Feed the Hungry talked about their agencies at the Thursday night meeting and detailed how they are currently serving the homeless population in York County.
Bruce McKagan, a ROC board member and former Muzak executive, facilitated the meeting. When McKagan worked at Muzak, he was just a few hundred yards away from a homeless camp without knowing it existed. He visited the camp for the first time a few weeks ago.
“I was at the camp and I turned around and there was this large white building nearby. I recognized it, because I built it. It was at that moment, I wondered what else in the community I hadn’t seen,” he said.
Lora Holladay, head of the homeless task force for the United Way, said homelessness is often an “invisible issue.”
“We don’t see the stereotypical homeless. You wouldn’t know the person who is sitting on Main Street in Rock Hill is homeless,” she said.
Right now, Holladay said, there are an estimated 10 to 12 homeless people living in the Fort Mill area, though she cautions that the number is not exact.
“That’s not to say it’s everyone, because it’s not,” she said.
Holladay also pointed out that domestic violence victims housed at Safe Passage in Rock Hill count as homeless because they are in temporary housing. They are included in Rock Hill’s homeless count. The agency serves as many clients from Fort Mill as Rock Hill, she said.
Susan Dean, director of Pilgrim’s Inn, a shelter for men, women and families in Rock Hill, said sheltering the homeless is a complex issue.
“It’s more than just providing a bed and a blanket,” she said.
A growing segment of the homeless population are mothers with preschool age children who couldn’t find childcare and therefore, couldn’t get a job, she said. Some have problems with chemical dependency; others have mental health issues.
“If mental health did not cause your homelessness, it will grow out of it to some extent,” Dean said.
Dental care is a primary need among the homeless, she added.
“If your teeth are rotting out of your mouth, how are you going to compete against other people for a job?” she said.
In York County, shelters and warming centers can house approximately 140 people total, though two of those shelters are seasonal and only open their doors in cold weather.
Dale Dove volunteered at a warming center in Rock Hill for three years before founding ROC, a community assistance group. He planned meals for the center and enjoyed visiting nightly with the men who came for a warm meal and place to stay.
He recalled one night when a homeless man, a regular at the shelter, dropped in and thanked Dove for the evening meals.
“He was singing my praises. He is coming here for me to feed him every night and I look forward to it. And I thought, ‘There is something seriously wrong with this. He is not my pet,’” Dove said.
Relief work – providing immediate needs, such as food and shelter – is important when someone is in crisis, Dove said, but “it needs to be temporary because the longer we do something for someone who can do it for themselves, they will atrophy.”
ROC helps create development plans for the homeless that include helping them get jobs, manage their own finances and find permanent housing.
ROC is Rock Hill-based, but serves the entire county, Dove said. He suggested that every community, including Fort Mill, needs a single point of entry for the homeless, like ROC, that allows them to get services quickly from a variety of agencies, and helps them create a life plan.
Fort Mill agencies aiding the homeless
Mary Baker, head of Serving Meals Ministry, was one of several agencies mentioned that are in the Fort Mill area providing assistance for the homeless. Serving Meals Ministry provides meals for low income areas and for the homeless, but Baker said that she wants the ministry hopes to one day open a shelter for the homeless in the Fort Mill area.
“Our heart is with the shelter. We want to be more than a plate of food, but the food is a tool to get to them, to get us in the door,” Baker said.
Scott Sheppard introduced the community to Living Proof Ministry, a group that collects unneeded household items to donate to the needy.
“Whether you are homeless or down on your luck, if you need it, you just come and get it,” he said.
He encouraged the crowd to look around their homes and storage units for unused items.
“It all starts right here. You’ve got to give.”
A second community meeting is planned for June 13 at Grace Presbyterian at 7 p.m. to discuss specific ways the community can help the homeless in the Fort Mill area.