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.
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
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
Something so cheap and so simple could mean the difference between a
warm bed and soggy sleeplessness. Or even worse bearable temperatures or
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
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
This is what he said:
Firewood (this was #1 on the list)
Anti bacterial hand wash
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
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.