2018-01-03 / Front Page

Police open hearts, often wallets, to help homeless

Ledger Staff Writer

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of stories focusing on the plight of the homeless in Cherokee County. This story deals with the issue of police officers’ encounters with those who have nowhere to get out of the cold.)

When you think about it, the 1982 movie “Rambo: First Blood” would have been a whole lot less eventful if a small town sheriff had been a little more kind to an apparently homeless drifter making his way through town.

Then again, a police officer offering a warm bowl of soup to someone who appears down on their luck wouldn’t necessarily garner a sensationalized treatment by Hollywood.

But just like the often unseen number of homeless who spend nights huddled under bridges or in makeshift camps in the woods, good-hearted but often unseen interactions between the police and homeless occur on a daily basis.

Dig around area police agencies and you’ll hear stories of officers and deputies digging into their own pockets to help someone in need, checking on the homeless whenever temperatures plummet, offering rides to local shelters and even trying to get them help through social service agencies.

“There’s a lot more homeless than people realize,” offered Blacksburg Police Chief Jamie Ham. “It’s one of those things that’s hard to see.”

In November, a homeless woman from Blacksburg that Ham knew was found dead in a makeshift tent she had set up in a wooded area behind a West Floyd Baker Boulevard strip mall. It was a place she had chosen, the woman had told Ham, because she could walk around Walmart and another nearby business that was open 24 hours to warm up at night without anyone complaining.

“That’s weighed heavily on me ever since,” Ham said of the woman’s death. When word initially went out in law enforcement circles about the woman’s death — she reportedly died with no identification on her — Ham knew exactly who they were talking about based on the description. While Ham didn’t know a whole lot about the woman besides their occasional interactions, he said she knew almost everything about him — the names of his family members, wife and children — and would ask how his family is doing.

“She was an intelligent person,” he said. “She just had a bad run, became homeless and it spun out of control.”

Her death from natural causes was one of three homeless deaths in 2018, said Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler. Fowler also investigated two cases in which homeless people were found in abandoned houses in Gaffney.

All three were deemed natural causes and Fowler said he likely sees two to three such cases every year.

Hiding in plain sight

Just like police, Fowler has become familiar with many of the places where the homeless population stays. “They just set up camp and you don’t know (about them) until something happens,” he said.

In January 2010, a 55- year-old homeless man was found dead at his campsite in a small patch of woods off Windslow Avenue in Gaffney, a stone’s throw from a motel and a convenience store. His death was blamed on freezing cold temperatures.

“Moe,” as he was known, never looked for handouts and actually kept a watchful eye out for workers at nearby businesses who did what they could to help him. “Moe” had told one person he lived outdoors because he had a “people phobia,” The Gaffney Ledger reported at the time. He told another it was simply “more peaceful outside.”

For whatever reason, he chose to live that way.

“Most of the time, when you talk to the families they’ll say they tried to get them (the homeless person) to stay with them and they wouldn’t do it,” Fowler said.

That patch of woods where “Moe” died is far from the only place in Cherokee County where someone can live without being seen.

There’s a small wooded area between Interstate 85 and a convenience store near Exit 96 where as many as two to four people routinely camp, Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller said. “We used to have one staying under the overpass (at the 95 Mile Marker), but we haven’t seen him in about six months.”

In Blacksburg, Ham caught wind of an entire family living under a bridge on McGill Highway. They weren’t there when Ham went to check on the report, he said. “But you could see the remnants of people living there, blanket, food, toilet paper, kid’s stuff.”

In the City of Gaffney, former Police Chief Rick Turner, who retired from a 31-year career in law enforcement last week, said his officers know of several places in Gaffney where the homeless tend to stay, such as the patch of woods where the woman died last November. Among the other places, it’s been common for police to find someone camped under the T-Bridge, though that’s one of the places where police are guaranteed to enforce the law by mandating the homeless person find someplace else. The railroad will notify police when it spots anyone there.

A case-by-case basis

While none of the three local police agencies in Cherokee County have specific written policies in regards to officer or deputy interaction with the homeless, leaders of all three agencies said they try to offer help when they can.

Mueller said his office routinely works with other agencies, such as Miracle Hill Ministries, Harbor of Hope and the Salvation Army to get help to the homeless.

“Sometimes we take for granted that everyone knows what services are out there,” Mueller said. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of connecting people.”

For instance, the Cherokee County Veterans Affairs Office can hook up a homeless veteran with help from the Veterans Administration. “There’s no excuse for being homeless if you’re a veteran,” said veterans affairs officer Todd Humphries, who said he will go out and talk to homeless veterans identified by local police agencies.

Mueller said his office has also partnered with several area churches on outreach efforts. One local church, for instance, supplies the sheriff ’s office with backpacks that contain cold weather gear, such as blankets, winter caps and gloves, that deputies can distribute.

Heading into last week, Mueller said, the office had about a dozen of the bags just before the current cold snap.

“If they need help, you get them what help you can,” offered Turner.

On cold nights, Turner said, it’s common for police officers to be on the lookout for known homeless individuals and to check out known places where the homeless tend to live.

“You have to show some compassion,” Turner added. “For the most part, they’re (the homeless person) going through an issue in their life that has brought them to this point.”

Some are homeless by choice, Mueller and Turner said. “Some have become homeless, unfortunately, because of addictions,” Mueller added. “Some are homeless because of unemployment.”

“You have to look at them on a case-by-case basis.”

While compassion is common, that’s not to say police will overlook the law. Turner confirmed police have needed to enforce the law when it comes to complaints about trespassing on private property, such as complaints received when people are spotted living under the T-bridge, as well as complaints about things such as panhandling.

While it’s not written down as policy, a homeless related infraction will generally result in a warning on a first encounter.

“It’s always one of those things where you give the person an opportunity,” Turner said. “We try to give them an opportunity to cease. They’re down on their luck and we don’t want to exacerbate that.”

Mueller said his deputies, too, generally give a warning and place someone on trespass notice.

Last summer, concerned about numerous people panhandling off Exits 90, 92, and 96 of Interstate 85 and leaving behind piles of trash at each exit ramp, Mueller acknowledged the local police agencies began to scrutinize those folks more carefully.

Surprisingly, he said, “Some of these folks were not homeless. They were driving up there in a car, scamming people out of money with signs saying, ‘I’ll work for food.’ That’s how they were making a living.”

A helping hand

While deputies occasionally get complaints about people panhandling in parking lots and such, Mueller said, for the most part the true homeless don’t cause many problems from a crime standpoint.

“Most are just trying to get enough money to get their next meal,” he said.

Ham is trying to do something about that.

The Blacksburg chief purchased a vacant downtown Blacksburg building a few months ago — a building that once housed the Blacksburg Chamber of Commerce — and is hoping to open a soup kitchen there.

As of last week, there was a lot of remodeling work left to do and Ham was hopeful of having the place operational in two months or so.

In addition to offering meals, Ham had plans to open the building up for emergency use as a shelter on freezing cold nights, such as what was forecast for this week. He had cots and blankets at the ready but the heat wasn’t operational just yet, causing Ham to make other arrangements for the availability of warm places for those who needed it most.

Ham posted signs on the building, offering his help.

He’s not sure what the place will ultimately be called once it’s operational.

There will be no drugs or alcohol allowed. He also plans to have free Bibles for those who need them.

The death of a homeless Blacksburg woman, who amazingly knew so much about him and his family, helped spur him in this direction.

“The Lord’s doing it, not me,” Ham stressed when asked about the effort, which he is currently making at his own expense.

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