Advocates for Fort Mill’s homeless see success but ‘work just beginning’

joverman@fortmilltimes.comNovember 4, 2013 

Jerry Bryant, 64, has been homeless on and off for more than 10 years.

FORT MILL TIMES FILE PHOTO

This is another installment in on-going series of stories examining the reality of homelessness in Fort Mill Township.

Jerry Bryant, 64, was the first homeless man to step onto the ROC van in July. Wearing a pair of dirty jeans and a worn white T-shirt, Bryant’s face was badly bruised and cut from a fall he said he had earlier in the week.

He was walking gingerly and talking slowly, sometimes incoherently.

The week prior, he said, he had been in the hospital recovering from a heart attack. The few days in the hospital were among only a handful that he has spent off the streets. Bryant has been homeless off and on for more than 10 years, largely spending his time on Main Street in Fort Mill and sleeping behind a bank of stores.

Along came ROC Rides, the brainchild of Dale Dove, founder of Renew Our Community, a Rock Hill-based agency that assists the homeless. ROC Rides was created to be a weekly transportation service for the homeless, to take them from Fort Mill to services they needed in Rock Hill.

In the first few weeks of ROC Rides, the program became far more than a transportation service. The leaders of the program, ROC board member Bruce McKagan and volunteer Kim Vinesett, quickly became friends with homeless men and women of Fort Mill. They began organizing weekly laundry service for them and helping with medical and dental care. Gradually, Vinesett began encouraging them to look beyond basic needs and into long-term ways to care for themselves, like rehab.

Bryant was her first success story.

“Once they get in the van, it really does change their perspective. They only know what they are doing now, and that’s the cycle of dysfunction. But like Jerry, he got in the van and he realized, he was keeping the world at arm’s length and not living in it,” Vinesett said.

“I think he got drunk and found himself face down and with no money and no friends anymore, and he was absolutely alone, and the only voice he had was [ROC Rides volunteer] Kim, saying ‘I can help,’” McKagan said.

Within weeks of stepping onto the ROC van, Bryant entered a 180-day program in Raleigh, N.C., that provides him alcohol rehabilitation as well as a job. The program reserves some of his income each week, so that Bryant has savings when he leaves. Counselors teach him life skills and help prepare him for going back into the “real world.”

Bryant has made a huge transformation in the last three months, McKagan said.

“He is simply doing great. He’s happy and working and it has turned his life around,” said McKagan.

No organized help

Before ROC Rides was established, the homeless men and women of the Fort Mill community were assisted by a few small groups who donated food occasionally and provided some meals. There was no regular service in place to help them and no way for them to reliably get to services they needed in Rock Hill, such as picking up a SNAP card, applying for a photo ID, or getting a Social Security card.

In the three months since ROC Rides began, 18 homeless men and women have been met and served by the program. Seven have found steady employment. Five are in a shelter. Six are seeking shelter. Two are in rehab facilities, including Jerry, and one is ready to begin rehab as soon as arrangements are finalized – possibly as early as this week.

One is working towards becoming drug free on her own, with the volunteers from ROC ready to assist if able and welcome.

The weekly transportation program takes the homeless to a soup kitchen for lunch, then to ROC Central, where they can get assistance with job searches, obtaining identification cards, or a variety of other services, including counseling.

The homeless men and women aren’t just taking help, they are also giving it, by finding ways to help themselves and each other. Each week, Karen Clute, one of the homeless women who lives near Carowinds Boulevard, is taken to a laundromat by volunteers where she does laundry for the other homeless people in the area.

A few months ago, several of the homeless picked up trash on Carowinds Boulevard, near where some of them live, as a way to give back to the community.

At Christmas, many will ring bells for the Salvation Army.

“It’s making a difference,” McKagan said. “Sometimes we don’t know where we are going, but we are getting there.”

The homeless are working together, not only to be productive members of the community, but to support one another, McKagan said.

When one recently left for substance abuse rehabilitation, his last text was to his friend who is struggling to make the decision to also go to rehab.

“I know you can do it,” it read.

Changing lives

ROC Rides can tout success stories among the homeless, but lives are also being changed among the groups’ volunteers.

Bethany Guttas read about the homeless in Fort Mill in the Fort Mill Times. After doing a poverty simulation exercise at her job at Wells Fargo she decided to donate more of her time to helping the needy. She visited ROC Central, met with McKagan and Vinesett, and asked how she might be able to help with the ROC Rides program.

Vinesett joked with Guttas that day that she would be so moved by the program that she would quit her job to help out. She was right.

“The next week I quit my job. I said, ‘There is work to be done here,’” Guttas said.

Now, Guttas rides the van each week and helps organize the efforts for Fort Mill’s homeless community. Her family is also helping. Her sons are building a website for the group and her church, The Gathering, is helping organize a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless.

“We’re taking people that society usually shuns and we’re building relationships, so they feel like they’re part of the community,” Guttas said. “They are important.”

Businesses help

Vinesett and McKagan recently formed Serving Our Neighbors Ministry, to give name to the group that is driving the effort to assist the homeless in Fort Mill. SON Ministry will continue to spearhead the ROC Rides program, with the help of ROC, who provides use of the van and welcomes them each week to ROC Central.

SON has quickly become recognized around the county for its work with the homeless, which has allowed volunteers to work with local organizations, including The Salvation Army, Keystone, and area churches, to meet the needs of the homeless men and women in Fort Mill. Partnering with those agencies is a key to their success, said Vinesett.

“They know who we are and respect what we’re doing. We can’t solve all the problems of all the people. We can get them food and showers but going deeper and solving life problems that inhibit them from going forward into a full life, we can’t do that without all the other players,” Vinesett said.

Local businesses are also stepping up to help out, she said, including Lucille’s Laundry, which donates washer and dryer time to the group; Breadsmith supplies bread twice a week, and Fort Mill Family Restaurant, which welcomes the group to the restaurant after church on Sundays and frequently offers food to the homeless, Vinesett said.

It’s a great start, Vinesett said, but she hopes to see more community members, businesses and local churches get involved in the effort.

“The more people to help, the more ways we can help more people,” she added.

Right now, SON and the ROC Rides program is funded in part by an ongoing donation from Vinesett’s neighbor, who offers his income from a pressure washing business, and from Vinesett and other volunteer’s personal donations.

“We continue to fund things personally. We’re not going to hold people back until the community pledges,” she said. “We’ll make that happen. We’ve been self supported but as we move forward, the finances are going to be important.”

Vinesett and McKagan have put together an estimated budget of less than $1,000 monthly for SON Ministries, which includes funding for gas for the ROC van, money for documents, such as Social Security cards and birth certificates, as well as prescription medication and toiletries.

Vinesett hopes to see churches back the effort. She points out that if 18 area churches would support the program with $50 a month, they could meet their financial goals.

‘Just the beginning’

Of the statistical successes SON can list, Vinesett most enjoys talking about how many ROC Riders have a relationship with God.

“Fifteen have a relationship with God, either recommitted or coming to it for the first time. I’m really excited about that part, because I know with God all things are possible. Ten are going to church with us. That’s half the population committing and showing up. That’s a great time of fellowship with them,” she said.

They go to The Gathering with Guttas, and to New Creation and Trinity Baptist with other SON Ministry volunteers, Vinesett said.

“It’s exciting and makes us unique. We’re not nestled under one church’s leadership and direction. We’re there for the people and whatever helps them get better,’ she said.

The ROC Rides program started on a hot July morning when a van pulled onto Fort Mill’s Main Street and Jerry Bryant stepped on.

Three months later, the van still stops on Main Street and around the community each Thursday, but the program has grown from a one day van ride to a week-long effort to help Fort Mill’s homeless in all aspects of their lives, working towards the day when the van door opens and there are no homeless men or women to step on.

“It’s not about the van ride. That’s not the end game, that’s the beginning game,” McKagan said.

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