Eddie Holland had to stop. He couldn’t make the seven-minute walk without taking a break.
His feet were swollen, his right leg and hip too bothersome to keep moving. He wore jeans and a backpack and carried a few bags on the trek to the concrete haven he and a few other homeless friends would seek shelter in for the night.
They needed to hurry before Myrtle Beach bike patrol officers spotted them and kept them from the place they’ve relied upon as refuge from bad weather and unsavory strangers.
That night, with temperatures in the low 60s, Holland, who has been homeless for about a year, had the same choice he faced on nights when freezing weather set in. He could remain on the streets or return to Street Reach, Myrtle Beach’s only homeless shelter, a place Holland once lived and where he served as an in-house security guard.
“I’d take my chances on the streets,” said Holland, one of the estimated 800 to 1,000 homeless people in the city of Myrtle Beach.
The group prepared by laying down plastic bags, then topping them with blankets. Rain was in the forecast and when it rains, the concrete sweats, becoming wet beneath their bodies. The plastic protects the blankets, which are among their most precious possessions.
In the past, officials have been quick to say those who refuse to return to Street Reach have either broken the rules or simply choose to live on the streets.
The reality is much more complicated.
A series of interviews with homeless people and their most passionate advocates revealed problems at the shelter have driven many away. Those problems include health and safety conditions and rules that residents say have become arbitrary, capricious and unfair in recent years.
Holland, who has fought diabetes for 17 years, doesn’t stay on the streets because he is an alcoholic or drug abuser, or because he doesn’t want to work. He works odd jobs for several hours a day, when he can find them, usually for about $8 an hour. He volunteers at the Community Kitchen and even temporarily found steady work through a Street Reach program.
But the atmosphere at Street Reach had simply become untenable, Holland said.
“It’s cold out in these streets, but I’m not going back there [Street Reach],” he said on a frigid, cloud-filled late February day.
Shelter officials cite changes
Street Reach officials, while touting a multitude of successes — helping homeless men and women find jobs, building their social and other skills, saving Myrtle Beach taxpayers money with a more efficient service delivery system — don’t deny there were problems.
They began making changes weeks ago, in part because of questions raised by The Sun News, including parting ways with director Gail Crowder.
“You’ve revealed problems to us that we didn’t know about,” said Mary Jeffcoat, a board member of New Directions, which oversees Street Reach. “We’ve made significant changes. Finding the right people to run Street Reach has been difficult. We are dealing with a difficult population.”
Among the homeless clients’ allegations:
▪ Rules were haphazard and could mean someone put out on the street in the dead of night and in the cold, with no recourse even if the removal was unwarranted.
▪ Even people without addictions had to attend meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous or be forced to attend church as a makeup.
▪ Security was lacking, with no locks on the doors in the women’s dorm even though there were residents with criminal records that included sexual misconduct and assault.
▪ Residents were discouraged from reporting problems and told they’d be banned from Street Reach if they reached out to the media or anyone else who might listen.
▪ Bed bugs are a constant problem, sometimes so bad “some people woke up swollen” from being bitten throughout the night.
▪ What began as a ministry became too much about the collection of money from people who struggle to have any, even when they are working.
Street Reach clients said they had raised these issues with officials multiple times, but to no avail. It’s better than being on the street, they say they were told when they complained.
“Nobody bothered to ask us [about the shelter’s condition] because they don’t think we are worth anything,” said a homeless woman named Vanessa. The Sun News is not using her full name because she said she doesn’t want her abusive estranged husband to know her whereabouts. “But if we are willing to stay outside in 20-degree weather, you know it’s bad.”
The search for shelter
Those who chose to stay on the streets include people like Holland, who is diabetic, and others who who are in and out of the hospital because of chronic conditions worsened by the stress of living on the street.
Vanessa worries that Holland could succumb to a diabetic coma or other complications as they sleep and she’d be unable to get him help quickly enough.
The other friend in their trio, Ricky Truitt, has made multiple trips to the hospital over the past several weeks because of COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Others, including a mother and son, and two brothers who share a moped and large plastic bag of clothes but little else, suffer from a variety of challenges, including diagnosed and undiagnosed mental and emotional illnesses that often are un- or under-treated.
Family disputes, sometimes between husband and wife, other times between parent and child, add to the Myrtle Beach area homeless population.
That doesn’t include alcohol and drug addictions that are difficult to address even for those who have shelter, food and health care.
Many people on the economic margins show up from other areas, hoping to take advantage of Myrtle Beach’s abundant low-wage paying jobs in the summer only to find little to no work during increasingly cold winters. That’s when they find themselves reliant upon organizations such as Street Reach, the Community Kitchen and Helping Hands.
They find shelter where they can, behind a big bush in front of a large church after dark, deep in the woods among those with drug addictions so severe many other homeless people dare not approach them; in Chapin Park if they can get away with it; in other cracks and crevices of the city unnoticed by most residents as they whiz by in cars.
They get haircuts in the park and pass the time there on days they’ve been unable to find work. But popular events such as Art in the Park, held last weekend, displaces them, leaving them scrambling.
Those who work try to hide their living arrangements from employers, afraid if their bosses know they are living at Street Reach or on the streets they might be lose their jobs.
Adhering to city laws — knowing precisely how long they can sit on the benches or on the swings, avoiding resting their heads on the tabletops after getting sleepy, spotting cops who will “give them a break” if they aren’t bothering anyone and those who “could be nasty” — is a full-time job.
Couple those challenges with enduring mocking stares, or worse, from passersby, adds to the stresses of life on the street.
Late one recent Monday evening at the stoplight in front of Chapin Park, a young man got out of the car he was driving and chased an elderly homeless man into the park, camera phone in hand and a big smile on his face.
About 30 minutes later, a small group of young women glared at Holland, Vanessa and Truitt as they made their way to that night’s shelter.
They rationalize away the insults, hoping they’ve done enough “to blend in” instead of seeming downtrodden and unworthy of compassion or respect.
Even though one of the best views of the city is only blocks away — the Myrtle Beach skyline and the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing on the beach — they can’t enjoy it.
They are too afraid of being found out. They hunker down, sometimes for 14 hours at a time, quiet, in their blankets with plastic bags, bottles of water and a few crackers when they are lucky.
They leave the area the way they found it, with its peeling paint and hard, gray floors and a faint scent that eventually overwhelms the nose, but otherwise clean and litter free. They don’t want to give the cops reason to remove them from what has become their family home.
“I feel safer here,” Vanessa said.
At Street Reach, she and other women slept with knives under their pillows, afraid of being attacked at night — until the knives were no longer allowed.
“There, I risked being raped, having my stuff stolen,” Vanessa added. “Here, I have my freedom.”
Addressing problems, needs
Kathy Jenkins, executive director of Street Reach, said she is determined that Vanessa and other women and men who use the shelter never feel that way again, unsafe, unloved and disrespected.
Over the past few weeks, the shelter has implemented a clearer set of rules and regulations, including a system of escalating punishments — a 10-day suspension for first offense, 90 days for a second infraction — as well as a 5-day drug testing grace period.
Gail Crowder, who had served as on-site director for about three years and was the source of many of the complaints, is no longer an employee of Street Reach. She said she she left because she and Jenkins began seeing things differently. Jenkins and board members would only say that it was time for a change.
Other changes include:
▪ They have paid an exterminator $18,800 to deal with bed bugs, including a recent treatment.
▪ An experienced case worker has been spending more time at the shelter.
▪ A full-time security official is on hand as well.
▪ The shelter has contracted to have more security cameras and add sensors to the doors in the women’s section of the shelter.
Those changes are in addition to programs that were already in place. Street Reach Enterprises is one of the most prominent. The shelter contracts with area businesses, such as golf courses, and residents provide landscaping and other help.
The business pays Street Reach, which deducts a portion of the resident’s wages to help defray the cost of things such as liability insurance, equipment and transportation.
Street Reach officials say the program is important because it leads clients back into independence, but barely breaks even. But it has also been one of the main sources of discontent for some clients who feel they are cheated by the process.
Holland worked through Street Reach Enterprises but stopped after learning more about it.
On the typical $11 per hour Street Reach Enterprises contract, the Street Reach resident receives $7.50 but still has to pay the $60 weekly fee to live in the shelter.
For some residents, it has led to long-term work and more stable housing, including a former Street Reach employee who now works for Blackmoor golf course.
“I have been very impressed; they’ve been dependable and their work has been as good or better” than other employees, said Blackmoor general manager Bob Zuercher.
Longer term, New Directions Board Chairwoman Mary Jo Rogers said they are hoping to secure another facility by the end of 2015 if enough donations can be secured to house women exclusively, which would help alleviate many security concerns women have.
“We have to re-establish lines of communications,” she said. “We believe in second chances for everybody. They are valuable human beings. Our goal is to help them be what they want to be in life. We have to make sure people feel safe.”
Vanessa, after learning of the changes already implemented and the promises for more, remained skeptical.
Take the promise of new security measures in the women’s dorm: Vanessa said about a month ago she won’t believe it until she can test the system herself, until she hears the buzzer sound and the doors click.
The work has been contracted out, Jenkins said.
As of this past week, the sensors had not been installed.
By the numbers
▪ Street Reach, a component of New Directions, served 527 people during 2014
▪ New Directions saved roughly $350,000 during its first year of existence
▪ During fiscal 2014-15, Myrtle Beach gave New Directions $130,950
▪ The group needs about $100,000 to secure a new facility for women and an estimated $400,000 to finish renovations at the current facility
▪ The typical client served at Street Reach is a white man between the ages of 50 and 65
▪ 303 Street Reach residents moved into permanent housing in 2014
▪ Street Reach residents pay $60 per week, or $240 per month, to live at the shelter
▪ Street Reach serves upwards of 150 people daily but doesn’t have the capacity to serve the area’s entire homeless population
▪ On the first night of a temporary shelter at Sun Coast Church in Myrtle Beach, 17 people were served. Another 26 were served the following night. The shelter was then shut down because of fire and building code regulations.