In a way no one could imagine, the shift away from “toxic charity” over the past three years is likely the reason Myrtle Beach Fire Marshal Bruce Arnel was standing in Sun Coast Church a few weeks ago, during one of the coldest stretches of winter, trying to quell what had become a clash between legal requirements and Christianity’s mandate to help the less fortunate.
A week earlier, residents near the church had called the city to complain after Sun Coast had begun a short-term, emergency shelter for the homeless. It was to be activated any time the temperature was forecast to hit 32 degrees or colder.
“We have to respond to complaints,” Arnel said during an intense but respectful exchange with a group of homeless advocates. “The [fire and building] code has no exception for morality.”
The memory of a homeless resident named William Henry Jr. and the influence of businessman and philanthropist Robert Lupton hung over the meeting, even though neither of their names was mentioned.
Henry’s body was found in an abandoned building weeks before Arnel’s inspection of Sun Coast, frozen to death during a night in which temperatures dipped as low as 17 degrees.
A group of homeless people who refuse to return to Street Reach — even during the coldest nights of winter — believe Henry was turned away from the homeless shelter because someone “smelled alcohol on his breath.”
Kathy Jenkins, executive director of Street Reach, said that’s not true, that Henry hadn’t even tried to return to the shelter for a year before his death.
“We don’t want anybody to freeze to death,” she said.
They do agree on one thing: Henry was in an abandoned building the night he died because of “the rules,” with Jenkins saying Henry wouldn’t follow them, and the homeless and their advocates saying the rules at Street Reach were arbitrary and unfair.
The rules for the homeless in Myrtle Beach effectively changed in July 2012 when the city and the Waccamaw Community Foundation invited Lupton to talk about his book, “Toxic Charity,” but are still defined in sometimes opposing ways, through religious and legal interpretations.
Before an audience at First Presbyterian Church, Lupton detailed ways non-profits often unintentionally provide the kind of charity that traps the downtrodden in cycles of poverty. Just months after his visit, some area non-profits began changing.
The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club of Conway and First United Methodist Church in Myrtle Beach, among others, began requiring those receiving services to either pay a nominal fee — like 10 cents for a shirt , or a few hours of volunteer work instead of giving away everything for free.
They reported improvements, including a greater appreciation from those they were serving, people who felt like they were contributing to their own redemption.
Street Reach began shifting as well, creating a common intake system to help eliminate clients receiving redundant services. (It, too, has a religious feel, with a large photo of the Christian Bible in its library, churches that help prepare meals and make upgrades to the building, and a large mural on the wall that includes a picture of Jesus and the woman from Luke 7:36-50, which reminds people that those who have been forgiven of much love much.)
An umbrella organization called New Directions sprouted up to streamline services for the homeless and other needy residents.
“Anecdotely, I’d say we’ve seen enormous changes since the toxic charity discussion,” said Myrtle Beach City Spokesman Mark Kruea. “Not only has New Directions saved significant dollars, but more important, it has helped dozens of people escape their homeless condition and recover their lives. In general, I sense a more upbeat, positive attitude among those who must ask for assistance, and this is in direct relationship to the way that assistance is offered and the real help that is available to those who are willing to take advantage of it.”
That’s where the tension lies, determining the right kind of assistance and those “who are willing to take advantage of it.”
Lupton’s vision, essentially adopted by New Directions and Street Reach and supported by the city, is structured upon offering programs that will lead to independence.
The small group of homeless advocates who met Arnel at Sun Coast Church believe that philosophy leaves a hole in the system, one through which they believe Henry fell and a hole that could claim other homeless residents as well.
That approach doesn’t create dependency; it inspires the needy through the compassion it expresses.
“We just believe it is our right to take care of these people,” George Lorenz, a member of the ad hoc group, told Arnel on the day the church was inspected.
The inspection revealed Sun Coast didn’t have enough entrances and exits, among other things, meaning it couldn’t legally be used as a shelter.
Almost all overnight events — such as “lock-ins” many Myrtle Beach area churches routinely host — are breaking the state’s fire code. That fact only matters, though, if someone complains and calls the fire marshal.
When Sun Coast hosted a small group of student volunteers from North Carolina, who stayed overnight in the church, no one from the neighborhood complained.
The group was already leery of city interference because of what it has faced the past few years. its members believe there must be a place for helping homeless people who don’t want to, or for some reason can’t, adhere to the rules of Street Reach.
Providing food, and shelter from the storm is following Jesus’ example, and that can’t be harmful, the group believes. A number of homeless people said the group’s outreach has been a saving grace.
The group had been providing free, homemade meals to the homeless in Chapin Park and Withers park for months until they were told they were violating city ordinances.
They identified a couple of churches in the heart of Myrtle Beach that would sponsor the feedings on private, church property , until they were told the meals had to meet rigorous restaurant codes.
They sued the city, saying their religious rights were being infringed upon, only to have a court uphold the city’s laws.
Then came that mid-February day at Sun Coast Church and the inspection by the city’s fire marshal.
Again, another roadblock was being thrown in their path. Their frustration was palatable.
“The last thing I want to do is put people on the street when it is this cold,” Arnel said that day, as temperatures hoved in the mid-30s. “The layperson might not realize how dangerous it might be” to shelter people in a structure not approved as residential.
“Unsafe? Compared to being outside in the cold?” said Dr. Bill Davis, a member of the ad hoc group.
“You are violating our rights to practice our beliefs,” Lorenz said. “We cost the city nothing. We probably save them money.”
“I am in no way trying to espouse any kind of church doctrine,” Arnel responded. “I am a faithful member of my church. … I am not here as a church member. I am here as the fire marshal for the city of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. That’s the moral dilemma I have.”
Arnel and a building code official spoke about a potential workaround. An all-night revival type service, advertised as such, would allow the church to stay within city and state law while providing overnight shelter for the homeless. It would also mean no sleeping mats could be used, and it would be a bit dishonest, said Sun Coast pastor Bill Genda.
“If we go against the system in this way, would it jeopardize everything else we do?” he asked.
Just like that, what had been a religion-inspired fledgling outreach program to help the homeless Street Reach officials acknowledged they can’t accommodate was immediately shut down.
The ad hoc group was able to cobble together enough donations to rent hotel rooms for dozens of homeless people on some cold nights, but it was too costly to sustain.
Eventually, Street Reach re-implemented its overnight emergency shelter on the coldest days.
Still, that left dozens of homeless people who could have found warmth in a church instead forced to scramble to find a warm place on the streets of Myrtle Beach.
Carol Lorenz, a part-time resident who has been fighting to help the homeless along with her husband George, couldn’t hide her disgust.
“It’s a sad day in Myrtle Beach,” she said, “when law comes before a person’s needs.”