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January 11, 2015

The first extremely cold blast of winter last week quickened my awareness of the plight of the homeless people in our community. In 1997, our son Erik wrote a series of articles for the Herald-Journal on the problem of homelessness in Spartanburg. Erik’s journalism heightened community awareness and led to the establishment of the Spartanburg Interfaith Hospitality Network.

For this column I have taken excerpts from two of Erik’s original articles. Names have been changed but the problem of homelessness persists.

“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.   (Matthew 8:20)

The first morning Joann Beaufort woke up homeless, curled in the crawl space under the house she had been evicted from the day before, she felt like the only person in Spartanburg without a roof.

‘‘You’re so scared about everything that’s going on in your life that took you here,’’ she said. ‘‘And then one night you’ve got no walls.

‘‘I feel so exposed, so alone.’’

Beaufort was not alone. A 1996 Housing and Urban Development grant application from the city tallied 2,736 homeless as needing care. Other estimates of the homeless in Spartanburg County run as high as 4,000. Both numbers are little better than guesses. The range and low visibility of homeless folks make them an underestimated group, encountered and recognized only in their most extreme forms.

Those members range from men with matted beards sleeping under bridges to single mothers and their families holed up in a friend’s living room. It is a range of people scraping toward a home of their own, each individual at a different stage of providing themselves shelter.

Beaufort has achieved a measure of security since that first night sleeping on the ground two months ago. She is now a squatter in her brother’s girlfriend’s apartment in Camp Croft, a few paychecks from getting her own place, she said.

That optimism is not shared by Chuck Black, another member of Spartanburg’s homeless. A 1990 study of the county’s homeless found that 67 percent were without shelter for less than three months, but Chuck has been living in abandoned buildings and camping beside railroad tracks in Spartanburg for more than 20 years, and makes no pretense about changing that lifestyle.

Each morning, if he has the money, Black buys a bottle of Rock and Rye red liquor and walks to Labor Finders to look for a day job. He has no desire to turn his odd jobs into a regular paycheck, no desire to move from the streets to a permanent home.

‘‘I’ll die out here, that’s for sure,’’ the 63-year-old Spartanburg native said. ‘‘I wouldn’t want it no other way. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it’s not going to change now.’’

The spectrum of Beaufort’s temporary slide into homelessness and Black’s chronic transience makes helping the homeless a difficult task. This is possibly the most severe problem we have in Spartanburg. Homelessness comes with a cluster of other problems that have to be dealt with before someone can be stabilized in a residence.

That’s the case for Darren and his wife Wendy. Their crack habit and problems with alcohol and marijuana got them evicted from their apartment in August. The couple also lost custody of their three young children.

Since then, Darren has stayed at his mother-in-law’s house, spent several nights in his car and a few more at a homeless shelter. The couple was forced out from the shelter and their Narcotics Anonymous group for relapsing into crack use.

In the South, a region that prides itself on hospitality, homelessness is often out of sight.

Families without apartments are taken in by friends or family, and folks on the street are cordial or prideful enough to make beds out of the public’s line of vision.

The lives of Bo Carpenter, who makes his home in the canebrake behind the Church of the Advent, or Sam Smith, who builds a fire under a different overpass each night, are evidence of the homeless problem.

Robert Jamison wakes up with his day stretched in front of him – a void of empty time.

Under the Magnolia Street train trestle with eight other men, Jamison throws off the layers of ratty blankets, plastic sheeting, and cardboard that sheltered him during the night.

He takes a morning drink, Old English 800 malt liquor or Bull of the Woods Grape Wine, and scrubs at his teeth with the broken bristles of a toothbrush he carries in his front pocket. Jamison is the man people think of when they hear the word homeless – living on the street, middle-aged and white, an alcoholic and lethargic panhandler – the classic portrait of the wino.

‘‘People don’t know we’re out here. Not in Spartanburg,’’ Jamison said, his back against the concrete trestle. ‘‘But we’re all over.’’

Some are out on the street for a few nights while they look for a better place to stay. But a large portion of these men are chronically homeless, without a plan or even a desire to get off the street. There’s a certain portion of these men who aren’t unhappy with their situation. They don’t want to come off the street.

That’s the case for Mick Compton, who has been homeless for more than 40 years but can’t remember exactly how long. He has tried living in shelters but can’t stand living under other people’s rules. Compton doesn’t romanticize himself as a hobo and said he can remember a time when getting off the street was important to him.

But now, the restrictions of living in society outweigh the uncomfortableness of being homeless. He bounces around a series of abandoned houses he knows most nights and spends his days on the street in front of the Spartanburg County Courthouse, looking for odd jobs.

‘‘Nobody here’s going to tell me how to live,’’ Mick said, gesturing at the men leaning against the wall in front of a law office. ‘‘These guys are going to treat you a whole heap better than folks you meet out in the rest of the world.’’

Ronnie Love stands outside an abandoned car repair shop on Main Street, leaning his head on the plywood covering the windows. He had been sleeping in this building for the past five weeks, since the weather turned too cold to stay outside at night. Now, all of his belongings, including a coat, and a popcorn popper are inside.

He is 18 years old, homeless since he aged out of his foster home last spring. Ronnie is still struggling to adjust to life on the street. He said that soon after becoming homeless, he was raped twice by older men while he was high on crack. He said he would like to live in a shelter, but his dependence on drugs keeps him away.

David Oakes, 39, said the freedom of living homeless outweighs the dangers.

Oakes, an Army veteran diagnosed as manic depressive, left his wife and three children in Philadelphia and ran south. He has been homeless for five years. Oakes said it bothers him to see the homeless beg, that the point of this lifestyle is its independence.

‘‘I couldn’t handle all that family jazz,’’ he said. ‘‘It weighed too heavy on me.’’

Lying on a dirt shelf under a bridge, he pulls a picture from the breast pocket of the Army jacket he wears. It is a photograph of his family standing in front of their house.

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