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"A way out of the hopelessness." Services offer help to area homeless

Andrew LeCheminant’s life was the American ideal. He was firmly planted in upper-middle class with the house, the family, the white picket fence.

Divorce lost that family. Substance abuse lost a bit more. Eventually that ideal was gone, replaced by a new norm of life on the streets.

"I can honestly say, it was overnight for me," he said. "I went from having a house in the suburbs to homeless literally overnight. It can happen to anyone."

Seven months ago he showed up at a shelter in Horry County having given up. He was just looking for a roof and a bed.

"I thought I was just coming here for shelter," LeCheminant said. "And then I was offered, it's not just shelter, it's counseling, getting yourself mentally, physically back into the work force."

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Andrew LeCheminant talks about ending the hopeless of homelessness and completing a job preparation program. Jason Lee @jlee@thesunnews.com

Sitting in a office at the shelter, feet away from the area he now calls home, LeCehminant spoke of his experience. His appearance didn't scream "homeless" with disheveled apparel and unkempt hair. Instead, he dressed in business-casual dark-blue pants and a blue-and-white striped shirt.

The man who previously worked in law enforcement could have been mistaken for an officer in an agency. The salt-and-pepper hair, the graying mustache, all that was missing was the blue uniform.

LeCheminant tightly gripped a certificate for completing a New Directions of Horry County and SC Work program. The course teaches job preparedness skills to clients who might not know how to start the employment process in 2018. Recently, four men "graduated" from the program and were honored during a ceremony. Though, the commencement might have been more to show others at the men's shelter that the program works.

Officials praised LeCheminant during the ceremony and noted he was the one of the four who had landed a job. He said he is going to work in the hotel industry, but doesn't want to stop there. Even at age 51, LeCheminant hopes to enroll as "this dog needed some new tricks."

"It feels great to have a way out of the hopelessness of being on the street and being homeless," he said. "There is people out there that will help you. And all the help you want, all you have to do is ask for it here."

Asking for help can lead area homeless to several groups wanting to provide assistance. It could be a warm meal. It could be help paying the electric bill. It could be work. It could be a bus ticket to see family.

"We want to inspire"

As of the most recent, statewide homeless count, there were about 400 homeless people in Horry County. That figure trails only Greenville and Richland counties for the highest population in the state. Though the figures dropped across The Palmetto State from 2016.

Area homelessness was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this month after a viral video from inside a McDonald's. The video showed a man and the videographer being ousted by employees and Myrtle Beach Police. Millions of people watched the video, drawing feverish comments on social media.

Some of the comments led people to say that there are plenty of resources available to help the man in the video. But few identified those organizations.

New Directions of Horry County is one of those organizations that provides help for those who seek assistance. The group started five years ago and acts as a clearing house for homelessness in the community.

Director Kathy Jenkins said the area numbers might show a drop — in 2016 there were 492 homeless individuals in Horry County — but there has been no decrease in people walking into their 8th Avenue offices or a local shelter looking for a change.

"We probably have some of the hardest jobs in Myrtle Beach, but we have the best jobs in Myrtle Beach," Jenkins said. "Nobody walks though our door with a smile on their face. Nobody. And for someone to walk out of our door with a smile on their face, with a job, with home, with disability income, with a ticket to long-term recovery, a ticket home is the best in the world.

"When they came in they didn't think there was hope. They didn't think there was tomorrow. They didn't know what to do and we're just helping them figure out what to do and then figuring out how to get there."

She listed several avenues in which New Directions can provide help. The biggest might be offering shelter for hundreds. When New Directions was formed it took over operations of four independent shelters in Myrtle Beach under one umbrella.

Today, the men's shelter houses 90 beds, a women's facility has 24 beds and a family shelter provides space for 55.

The men's shelter is housed in a nondescript building off Mr. Joe White Avenue. Inside, Jenkins shows off the various living and communal spaces. Clients start in barrack's style bunk setting. As they gain seniority and more responsibility they also gain new living situations.

Across from the main bunk area are rooms, still with bunks, that offer a bit more privacy. Next door is the multi-purpose room serving as a cafeteria.

There are private rooms, still with bunks, nearby. There are then other rooms each offering more independence and personal space as clients transition from shelter life to life outside.

Clients can stay up for to two years in a shelter, which is a requirement set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Jenkins said. Though the lengths are often dependent on the particular client, Jenkins said.

Every client has a job on the grounds that changes weekly. Some of the chores are nominal such as ensuring door knobs are disinfected. Other jobs seem more important such as working in the kitchen, which provides meals to all four shelters. There are other rules and the shelters have a curfew. Jenkins said some of that structure can lead to misconceptions and complaints by people on the streets about the shelter's strictness.

New Directions' main program is called Back to Life. The center doesn't force change on its clients, choosing to offer them the opportunity for hope.

"We've gone beyond a time where providing a meal and a bed was enough," Jenkins said.

Clients meet with case works to discuss their current situation, goals and how to reach those milestones.

"We want to end homelessness, We want to find permanent positive solutions. We want to inspire and empower people to make permanent positive change in their lives ," Jenkins said.

"A small part"

New Directions is not the only group looking to help the homeless and less fortunate in Horry County. In fact, New Directions partners with many agencies to provide all conceivable help

The Eastern Carolina Homeless Organization offers a variety of services including permanent housing with support services in Horry, Florence, Marlboro and Williamsburg counties, according to the agency. The group also provides services to veterans and their families.

Community Kitchen also provides a major necessity to homeless and low-income families in the Myrtle Beach area. The kitchen provided 99,000 warm meals last year and offers food twice daily, every day.

"It's a small part, but an integral part," Executive Director Deacon Peter Casamento said about helping the less fortunate.

About half of their meals went to the working poor, so the kitchen helps more than the homeless. The group is housed in the Community Assistance Building, also along Mr. Joe White Avenue. Around lunch, people can be seen walking to the kitchen for a meal. Some look like the stereotype of homeless. Others don't, but just need a meal.

Menus at the Community Kitchen are varied and go beyond a simple soup kitchen — though Casamento said they offer soup every two weeks to remind people they are one.

Inside the kitchen, walls are lined with various food supplies from rice to pineapples. There is also a walk-in freezer, its size rivaling any Ocean Boulevard eatery. During a typical week, visitors might find a menu consisting of steak one day and beef stew another.

Casamento said having a belly full of a good meal allows clients to be more productive at work or have a clear mind to chose help.

Pubix, Lowe's, Costco and Kroger are the biggest donors to the kitchen, which is part of the Low County Food Bank, Casamento said. They also receive food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some of their supplies come through donations and the community can check the Community Kitchen's webpage for items of current need.

There are also several other groups that provide assistance. Helping Hands provides financial assistance and operates a food pantry. The Shepherd's Table offers services and meals to those less fortunate in Conway.

Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Berthune spoke about some of the police's efforts in the aftermath of the McDonald's viral video. She praised the department's work and said the video hurts the city's image.

"They work very closely with the four homeless shelters that we have throughout the city limits, and they help our homeless on a daily manner," Berthune said. "So I think it’s very sad that it’s come to this, it does hurt Myrtle Beach, it hurts the image of our police department, which I feel they do an incredible job and I know they work as hard as they can in situation like this to be human and to treat people just with a lot of respect and dignity."

Myrtle Beach Police Spokesman Joey Crosby declined to discuss some of their efforts to help homeless individuals and referred questions to New Directions.

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