See Rock City

See Rock City

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Local Group Discovers Christmas In The Heart Of Greenville’s “Tent City”

Editor’s note: Please visit the group’s facebook page if you have questions about donating. Scott, the group’s leader, has requested that everyone bring donations to the event tonight at Pizza Inn in Greer at 5pm – 9pm and not go to Tent City. There will be more information at the event tonight regarding future steps. They are requesting can food, toiletry items, winter coats, gloves, toboggans, socks and thermal underwear. Thanks to donors, they have more clothing donations now than they need.
Recently I talked with Scott Southern who is hosting a fundraiser for the homeless who live in “Tent City” in Greenville, SC.

When I read the Greenville News article and saw the pictures of those who live there, my heart broke.
Here is what Southern had to say about Tent City:

This evening I was asked to go to a homeless community in Greenville that you might have seen on TV recently. The media has dubbed it “Tent City.”  As we were trying to find “tent city,” I found myself warning those of all the negative aspects of dealing with the homeless, “Don’t wear any jewelry, look out for needles, stay close and don’t wonder off”, I recall saying. Throughout the last 18 years, I have dealt with the occasional homeless person. Some have been raging drunks, drug addicts, or mentally ill. Others have been just terribly down on their luck…Nothing in my past training or experience could have prepared me for what we were about to walk into.
Greenville Tent City
Greenville, SC – Tent City

Over 150 homeless individuals live under a bridge just a few feet from the railroad tracks. Most were in tents others were in crudely built plywood and tarp covered structures.

As I walked up to greet them, I made sure the ladies sat in their cars because, in my narrow mind, I was “protecting them from the evils of the homeless.”

The first person I saw was a sweet lady reading a book by a tent. She smiled pleasantly and asked, “What can I do for you?” When I explained what I was there for she said she would be happy to have her picture taken and began to tidy up around her tent, straightening out the tarp over the top of it.

The tarp kept the rain out when the wind blows it under the bridge she explained. I was shocked, even in conditions this terrible she still had the pride of a grandmother when company was coming by.

Our talk was quickly interrupted by a very stern voice asking me what I needed. That was when I turned to see the “Lt. Governor” of Tent City (I promise that is what everyone who lived there called him!) He was a gentleman in his late 50′s that was standing straight as a soldier looking me dead in the eye. When he spoke, heads popped out of tents and several people came out to see the intruder.

I again explained my presence, and I don’t know if it was my charming personality or the backpack full of free cigarettes and matches that Pam bought that allowed our entry. But something tells me it was the nicotine.

Although the Lt. was the enforcer, he was not totally in charge. He glanced to a much smaller softer spoken man who nodded in approval, and our entry was granted. I later was informed that the little guy was the Governor and that I had already met the First Lady. I called and told the ladies they could come get their photographs because I had clearance from the Lt. Governor.

As they walked down the muddy trail, I began to pass out the cigarettes. I was not mobbed, assaulted or yelled at. Everyone lined up. When I ran out of cigarettes, no one demanded my wallet or took my watch at knife point. Instead those who were in line first began to share with the others.

I asked the Lt. Governor what I could do to help. He didn’t say give me a pint of vodka or give me $20 dollars. His response was quick, “Give me a job” he explained that several years back he was in the Army where he learned to cook.

He had came home and worked in the same restaurant for years as a cook and after the restaurant went bankrupt he was out of work. He later lost his wife to sickness, and he was broke and alone and unable to find work. He then said he wasn’t sad or bitter he just wanted to work to “feel like a man again.”

At this point, I had to walk to the side and act like I was looking at a tent so the Lt. couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

After I composed myself, I was escorted around the camp while the ladies talked to others and took their photographs.

What I found were neat and tidy living quarters, clothes folded, windows and doors to tents zipped, and muddy shoes left outside to keep the mud out of the tents. Tents that are held down with rocks, bricks, and the occasional railroad spike. Tarps…tarps everywhere!! Tarps under and on top of tents to cover holes, tarps over windows to keep out the wind that roars under the bridge like a wind tunnel.
The First Lady explained, “It isn’t bad until the wind blows your tarp away, and the rain pours into your house.” I thought to myself, “Tarps, the same tarp Stonewall Southern has to cover his kennel!! The same tarp Stonewall eats if a corner happens to come down after a thunderstorm.”

Something so cheap and so simple could mean the difference between a warm bed and soggy sleeplessness. Or even worse bearable temperatures or hypothermia.

What I also saw was pride. Pride in not having anything of monetary value, but pride in what they wanted us to know about them. We heard stories about some of their pasts, stories about the Lt. Governor and his military service, stories about their Christmas decorations. That’s right! Christmas decorations…all two of them. Hung on a scrawny Christmas tree one of the men had chopped down with a dull hatchet. There were two ornaments on the tree, and I heard the story of how Leon (who didn’t want to be photographed) gave his wife three dollars that a stranger had given him. He told her to go to the store and buy her some candy and instead she bought two ornaments. A rabbit and a Christmas stocking.

Leon was proud that she wanted to share with everyone else instead of “eating up” all the money like he told her to. I told him that I loved the rabbit because my uncle had given me the exact same one the Christmas before he passed away and that seeing it on their tree reminded me of him. Then what happened next floored me more than anything that I can remember in a long while. Leon’s wife stood up took the ornament from the tree and handed it to me and said, “Here baby, you can have this one and when you put it on your tree think of your uncle.” I told her I wasn’t going to take her ornament, but that was the sweetest thing that anyone has offered in quite a while. She argued, “You don’t have yours anymore, and it means something to you.” As I quickly told myself, “Act like you are looking at a tent again…..think about the tarps…do something, but you better not let a tear fall.” Too late there it is!!! I tried to grasp my emotions I realized that I’ve got a tear rolling down my cheek because a homeless woman tried to do something sweet for me….as I explained to her that I still have my ornament and that I would not take hers she finally gave in and hung it on the tree. She quickly turned and hugged me and said it’s here if you change your mind.

That’s right I was hugged by a homeless person. I was not mugged; I was not hurt, and I was not bitten and given some ravenous disease. That’s when it happened. My outlook was changed. That’s when I realized that the same HUMAN BEINGS we approached to photograph like tourists in a national park were just that….human beings. Our brothers and sisters, our soldiers, our fellow man. Right here in our back yard!! Not some war torn third world country that our government funnels plane loads of cash to for some back door military operations or some desert where Sally Struthers flies to once a year to shoot a commercial that make us feel guilty about the uneaten dinner we threw away earlier that evening. I do not have the answers; I swear I am not preaching, and I am surely not saying to coordinate an annual hug the homeless day.

There are good and bad homeless people just like there are good and bad people in every walk of society. But as I sit here in my warm house typing away on my latest handy dandy smart phone with wi-fi and a cappuccino maker app, I realize that I have friends and family that have been there for me to keep me from hitting rock bottom and for them I am beyond grateful. So I am asking these same friends if you have something, anything that may help these men and women be a little more comfortable, please let me know. I will meet you to pick it up. You are more than welcome to come with me to help deliver these items. I asked them what they needed most and in unison at least six voices yelled out a list. The Lt. being the take charge type of man he is said I’ll tell him.

This is what he said:

Firewood (this was #1 on the list)
Flash lights
Anti bacterial hand wash
Toilet paper
Canned food
TARPS (of course)

And Leon said if I knew anybody who had a tent they didn’t use he would love to have it. His door zipper is broken, and his wife is cold natured.

And the First Lady loves to read so any unwanted books would be appreciated.

What I realized most of all today is that preconceptions of people in every walk of life are unfair, but most importantly I found that when you least expect it you can learn something from the people you least expect to learn from.

Leon’s wife taught me that the Christmas spirit is still alive. If you need to find it, it’s in the heart of a short little woman in a green sweat suit and gray toboggan, under a bridge in Greenville, South Carolina. If I didn’t describe her well enough. She will be sitting beside a Christmas tree with a bunny rabbit ornament on top.

Editor’s note: I encourage those in the Upstate to come out and support this group’s effort. Donations for Tent City will have a fundraiser on 12/12/2013 at Pizza Inn of Greer from 5-9 p.m. 10% of your bill will go towards this great cause. There will also be a donation box there where you can drop off items…. Needs are: toboggans, gloves, socks, coats, and thermal underwear.