Helping the Folks from the Woods

6/10/2014

Little River UMC aids homeless neighbors with showers, laundry ministry

By Jessica Connor, South Carolina's United Methodist Advocate

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LITTLE RIVER—You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the dense patch of vibrant green trees at the edge of Little River United Methodist Church houses far more than a smattering of squirrels and birds.

There, just a few feet in, live “the folks from the woods”—mostly men, a few women and some families, who pitch tents and cook over open fires day in and day out. For them, this is home, where they can sleep and live in relative safety, just yards from a House of God.

They’re people like Michael, who lives there with his brother, Joe, and his dog, Zipper. Michael used to be a commercial fisherman until he started having seizures. He can’t get a job now, because he’s too much of a risk to employers, but he’s been denied disability three times. So he and Joe camp out there, pick up occasional odd jobs and do what they can to survive.

That survival is made a little more bearable thanks to an outreach ministry courtesy of their neighbors, Little River UMC. Little River offers A Place of Our Own, a care ministry where people can come twice a week, take showers, get lunch and clothes, do some laundry and have a safe climate-controlled place to sit down and chat awhile.

“A lot of them have degrees and have fallen on hard times,” said volunteer Robert Jones. “Sometimes we’re just a rescue station ’til they move on and get back on their feet; many have gone on and gotten jobs. We just try to be a bridge that gets them back where they need to go.”

Little River’s homeless outreach started after the Rev. Randy Smith came on as senior pastor. Situated on busy Hwy. 17 north of Myrtle Beach, Little River UMC frequently saw people coming in asking for assistance. But soon, Smith realized many of those seeking help weren’t transients: There was a long-standing homeless community in the woods behind the church, he said—just a stone’s throw away. Others lived in disused or condemned houses across the street. Jobs were scarce. People were struggling.

Smith began to cast a vision.

“I started saying how a lot of churches have to go far away to mission, but God has been good to us and brought the mission to our doorstep,” Smith said.

And so it began.

At first, their help was more superficial, Smith said, mostly handing out money. Then Little River members David and Betsy Phillips signed on, and suddenly, Little River began to live into a new dream: being truly hospitable to their neighbors.

“People come here, they hitchhike down and they wind up in the woods,” said David Phillips, the ministry coordinator. “One guy was sleeping while hugging a tree with a blanket wrapped around him to keep him warm.”

Phillips has been in the military and seen poverty all over—Korea, Vietnam, Trinidad—and he and his wife decided they needed to do something.

At first, the ministry catered to homeless families, who are typically split up when they seek refuge at a homeless shelter. Usually, they have three options: live separately at a shelter, live in their car or live in the woods.

And in Little River, Phillips said, “We have an awful lot of schoolchildren sleeping in the woods.”

But another shelter is expanding their outreach to homeless families, so now Little River’s ministry mission has shifted; they are now focusing on providing basic human care to their neighbors. On Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. year-round, people are permitted to shower and do laundry at the church, plus enjoy a free sack lunch.

“They like to sit down and talk,” Phillips said. “They want to feel accepted and not judged, want to feel human.”

At Little River, the church strives to provide such a place.

When they arrive, the men and women sign in, first names only—“They’re not animals you track; they’re people,” Jones said—and then are given soap, shampoo, razors and other toiletries. They receive towels, clean clothes, food and whatever else they need.

“At first we gave out these little mini bottles of shampoo, but we learned they prefer the big ones that they can use and share and give back; it’s more homey,” Jones said.

Michael, who has been using Little River’s facilities for a few months, said he really appreciates what the congregation is doing.

“It’s awesome, and I wish more churches did this,” Michael said. “A lot of people out there need help. A lot of people who are homeless live for a beer or smoking drugs, but there’s some of us that do care about life, like me and my brother. And it can be hard in the woods. We’ve had people come in and destroy our camp, go through our coolers, just for nothing.”

The showers, food and other services provide a needed respite.

Another man, James Bolton, relies on the ministry weekly, calling it “a blessing that really helps.” A commercial fisherman like Michael, Bolton, too, became afflicted with seizures. Now he’s reluctant to go back on a boat for fear he will have a seizure and fall into the water; he’s seen it happen to at least two other men.

Bolton said there is not a lot of work for people like him, so he has learned to live very cheaply. He stays at the river in a clamhouse, in an abandoned block barn, and he’s quit drinking and smoking.

“I’m just out here drifting, and this really helps a lot with food and showers,” Bolton said.

The ministry provides other help, too. The day the Advocate visited, one elderly man couldn’t see, so Phillips found a pair of eyeglasses for him. They have bought bus tickets for people, as well as food cards. Occasionally they will take people for a meal, and they host big Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, including gifts. In the winter, they put a group of men up at a hotel for three nights when temperatures dipped below 30 degrees. Last year, they bought seven tents for some of their neighbors in the woods.

Smith said he’s very proud of his church for being such faithful disciples.

“It's all about being hospitable. It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s you again, you needy person.’ It’s, ‘How can we help you?’” Smith said. “And when people are bathing their bodies and washing their clothes in your facility, you’re getting to know them more deeply than just handing them $20.”

The ministry wasn’t immediately appealing to everybody at the church. In the beginning, Smith said, there was a great deal of anxiety, fear, opposition and hostility, but the church has largely gotten over that. Now they embrace it as “our ministry.”

“A number of people didn’t want the folks from the woods in here. We had a lot of pushback in the beginning, and many people were fearful of their safety, but many feel differently now,” Phillips said. “One of our biggest opponents now wants to volunteer.”

Smith said they all—himself included—have learned much about poverty, homelessness and basic human dignity throughout this ministry.

“Homeless people are just people. They are,” Smith said. “I’ve realized there are thousands and tens of thousands of people literally all around us whose wellbeing is literally hanging by a thread.”

In addition to this ministry, Little River does two other homeless outreach projects: One is Shepherd’s Table, a dining ministry held Fridays from 5-6:30 p.m. The dinner is for anyone, though targeted to the homeless, and features good home-cooked food served to about 30-60 people every Friday night. The other project is helping the North Strand Housing Shelter, a shelter spearheaded by Little River members Mike and Dana Bolch, that soon will be housing homeless families together in one building, in addition to housing men and women separately.

Anyone interested in starting a similar ministry and wanting advice, or wanting to donate money or other items (such as men’s shoes) to Little River’s homeless outreach, can contact Phillips at 843-267-3275.