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Local Cop Discovers Christmas in the Heart of Greenville’s “Tent City”

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Recently I talked with Scott Southern who is hosting a fundraiser for the homeless who live in “Tent City” in Greenville, SC. See Facebook group.

When I read the Greenville News article and saw the pictures of those who live there, my heart broke.

Here is what Southern had to say about Tent City:

This evening I was asked to go to a homeless community in Greenville that you might have seen on TV recently. The media has dubbed it “Tent City.”  As we were trying to find “tent city” I found myself warning those of all the negative aspects of dealing with the homeless, “Don’t wear any jewelry, look out for needles, stay close and don’t wonder off”, I recall saying. Throughout the last 18 years, I have dealt with the occasional homeless person. Some have been raging drunks, drug addicts, or mentally ill. Others have been just terribly down on their luck…Nothing in my past training or experience could have prepared me for what we were about to walk into.

Greenville, SC – Tent City

Over 150 homeless individuals living under a bridge just a few feet from the railroad tracks. Most were in tents others were in crudely built plywood and tarp covered structures.

As I walked up to greet them, I made sure the ladies sat in their cars because, in my narrow mind, I was “protecting them from the evils of the homeless.” The first person I saw was a sweet lady reading a book by a tent. She smiled pleasantly and asked, “What can I do for you?” When I explained what I was there for she said she would be happy to have her picture taken and began to tidy up around her tent, straitening out the tarp over the top of it.

The tarp kept the rain out when the wind blows it under the bridge she explained….I was shocked, even in conditions this terrible she still had the pride of a grandmother when company was coming by.

Our talk was quickly interrupted by a very stern voice asking me what I needed. That was when I turned to see the “Let. Governor” of Tent City (I promise that is what everyone who lived there called him!) He was a gentleman in his late 50′s that was standing straight as a soldier looking me dead in the eye. When he spoke, heads popped out of tents and several people came out to see the intruder.

I again explained my presence, and I don’t know if it was my charming personality or the backpack full of free cigarettes and matches that Pam bought that allowed our entry. But something tells me it was the nicotine.

Although the Lt. was the enforcer, he was not totally in charge. He glanced to a much smaller softer spoken man who nodded in approval, and our entry was granted. I later was informed that the little guy was the Governor and that I had already met the First Lady I called and told the ladies they could come get their photographs because I had clearance form the Lt. Governor.

As they walked down the muddy trail, I began to pass out the cigarettes. I was not mobbed, assaulted or yelled at. Everyone lined up. When I ran out of cigarettes, no one demanded my wallet or took my watch at knife point. Instead those who were in line first began to share with the others.

I asked the Lt. Governor what I could do to help. He didn’t say give me a pint of vodka or give me $20 dollars. His response was quick, “Give me a job” he explained that several years back he was in the army where he learned to cook.

He had came home and worked in the same restaurant for years as a cook and after the restaurant went bankrupt he was out of work. He later lost his wife to sickness, and he was broke and alone and unable to find work. He then said he wasn’t sad or bitter he just wanted to work to “feel like a man again.”

At this point, I had to walk to the side and act like I was looking at a tent so the Lt. couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

After I composed myself, I was escorted around the camp while the ladies talked to others and took their photographs. Being an old narcotics detective I automatically went into “dope mode” looking for signs of illegal activity. Crack pipes, needles, and baggies anything that would explain why these men and women lived this way.

What I found instead were neat and tidy living quarters, clothes folded, windows and doors to tents zipped, and muddy shoes left outside to keep the mud out of the tents. Tents that are held down with rocks, bricks, and the occasional railroad spike. Tarps…tarps everywhere!! Tarps under and on top of tents to cover holes, tarps over windows to keep out the wind that roars under the bridge like a wind tunnel.

The First Lady explained, “It isn’t bad until the wind blows your tarp away, and the rain pours into your house.” I thought to myself, “Tarps, the same tarp Stonewall Southern has to cover his kennel!! The same tarp Stonewall eats if a corner happens to come down after a thunderstorm.”

Something so cheap and so simple could mean the difference between a warm bed and soggy sleeplessness. Or even worse bearable temperatures or hypothermia.

What I also saw was pride. Pride in not having anything of monetary value, but pride in what they wanted us to know about them. We heard stories about some of their pasts, stories about the Lt. Governor and his military service, stories about their Christmas decorations. That’s right! Christmas decorations…all two of them. Hung on a scrawny Christmas tree one of the men had chopped down with a dull hatchet. There were two ornaments on the tree, and I heard the story of how Leon (who didn’t want to be photographed) gave his wife three dollars that a stranger had given him. He told her to go to the store and buy her some candy and instead she bought two ornaments. A rabbit and a Christmas stocking.

Leon was proud that she wanted to share with everyone else instead of “eating up” all the money like he told her to. I told him that I loved the rabbit because my uncle had given me the exact same one the Christmas before he passed away and that seeing it on their tree reminded me of him. Then what happened next floored me more than anything that I can remember in a long while. Leon’s wife stood up took the ornament from the tree and handed it to me and said, “Here baby, you can have this one and when you put it on your tree think of your uncle.” I told her I wasn’t going to take her ornament, but that was the sweetest thing that anyone has offered in quite a while. She argued, “You don’t have yours anymore, and it means something to you.” As I quickly told myself, “Act like you are looking at a tent again…..think about the tarps…do something, but you better not let a tear fall.” Too late there it is!!! I tried to grasp my emotions I realized that I’ve got a tear rolling down my cheek because a homeless woman tried to do something sweet for me….as I explained to her that I still have my ornament and that I would not take hers she finally gave in and hung it on the tree. She quickly turned and hugged me and said its here if you change your mind.

That’s right I was hugged by a homeless person. I was not mugged; I was not hurt, and I was not bitten and given some ravenous disease. That’s when it happened. My outlook was changed.That’s when I realized that the same HUMAN BEINGS we approached to photograph like tourists in a national park were just that….human beings. Our brothers and sisters, our soldiers, our fellow man. Right here in our back yard!! Not some war torn third world country that our government funnels plane loads of cash to for some back door military operations or some desert where Sally Struthers flies to once a year to shoot a commercial that make us feel guilty about the uneaten dinner we threw away earlier that evening. I do not have the answers; I swear I am not preaching, and I am surely not saying to coordinate an annual hug the homeless day.

There are good and bad homeless people just like there are good and bad people in every walk of society. But as I sit here in my warm house typing away on my latest handy dandy smart phone with wi-fi and a cappuccino maker app, I realize that I have friends and family that have been there for me to keep me from hitting rock bottom and for them I am beyond grateful. So I am asking these same friends if you have something, anything that may help these men and women be a little more comfortable, please let me know. I will meet you to pick it up. You are more than welcome to come with me to help deliver these items. I asked them what they needed most and in unison at least six voices yelled out a list. The Lt. being the take charge type of man he is said I’ll tell him.

This is what he said:
Firewood (this was #1 on the list)
Flash lights
Anti bacterial hand wash
Toilet paper
Canned food
TARPS (of course)
And Leon said if I knew anybody who had a tent they didn’t use he would love to have it. His door zipper is broken, and his wife is cold natured.
And the First Lady loves to read so any unwanted books would be appreciated.
What I realized most of all today is that preconceptions of people in every walk of life are unfair, but most importantly I found that when you least expect it you can learn something from the people you least expect to learn from. Leon’s wife taught me that the Christmas spirit is still alive. If you need to find it its in the heart of a short little woman in a green sweat suit and gray toboggan, under a bridge in Greenville, South Carolina. If I didn’t describe her well enough. She will be sitting beside a Christmas tree with a bunny rabbit ornament on top.

Editor’s note: I encourage those in the Upstate to come out and support this group’s effort. Donations for Tent City will have a fundraiser on 12/12/2013 at Pizza Inn of Greer from 5-9 p.m. 10% of your bill will go towards this great cause. There will also be a donation box there where you can drop off items…. Needs are; toboggans, gloves, socks, coats, and thermal underwear.

Greenville Post – Breaking News & Analysis | Serving Greenville, SC


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    Total 11 comments
    • clary

      I was moved by the story on Tent City also and I am collecting supplies through Wedgy’s Pizza Delivery locations that I am taking to them on December 21st. I am interested in the Facebook group you mentioned above and I can not locate the group. It would be wonderful to team up with others and really make a difference in these peoples lives.

      • amie26

        I have items I would like to donate as well

    • Greenfire

      There, but for the grace of G_D, go I.

    • browneyedcathy

      Wonderful heart-warming story! Thank you for this article. It makes one stop and think about those less fortunate and realize that except by the grace of God, it could so easily be us living in those tents! I want to do more this Christmas for these people.

    • DandT

      I can’t find the “Tent City” group on Facebook. Can you tell me how to get in touch so that we can help…thanks!

    • yankee


      copy & paste the link above or search “donations for tent city” on fb

    • Attaboyslim

      It is sad but the stereotype of the homeless isn’t restricted to the people of Greenville. It is the same from Washington to Shreveport to Phoenix to LA and all points in between. A very well written article and as honest as can be expected but the struggles go much further than described here. Most cannot possibly fathom the possibilities of losing everything they own and I guarantee they won’t realize just what that means because I am not only speaking of possessions but something much more poignant. Most things are replaceable but there are other aspects that cannot.

      The homeless first lose the things in life that they cherish such as their favorite chair and being able to watch television but they are soon to lose even more. Personal mementos that they may have saved throughout their lives and soon, personal things like pictures and the like. Withing a very short time, their wardrobe is basically non existent because most will also have lost their automobile and it is difficult carrying too much around. What I mean is that everything retained as a reminder of their previous status in life must be drastically reduced in order to simply survive.

      Without the ability to store things in a closet or packing seasonal clothing away until needed, thew homeless must carry everything with them on their daily travels. In a place like your tent city, there seems to be a possibility of avoiding the possibility of carrying everything they own and may be able to leave their things behind as they search for work but that is rare. Most homeless haven’t this choice and neglecting your things for even a moment can result in all you own being stolen and when you have nothing, the smallest things are very important. Sadly, even these things aren’t the worst because losing ones dignity and pride are much worse.

      Being homeless means you will soon become invisible, or at least that is the perception. Most people will look right through you when passing on the street. Restaurants, convenience stores or other business; even if being a previous patron, will deny access to their restrooms which means that nearly all restroom breaks must take place out of doors. Homeless people must also; usually speaking, sleep during the daylight hours because sleeping at night can result in robberies, muggings or worse but this is even difficult. That is because the vast majority of Police Officers will never allow a homeless person to sleep in a public place day or night.

      There are no bathing facilities and washing clothes can be the difference in a person eating for the day, period and this is especially tough for females. The fact is that I challenge any one who reads this to walk in the shoes of a homeless person for only three days before you ever consider them as useless. Here is what you will need and this is a short list.
      (1) A few changes of clothing
      (2) A jacket and a coat
      (3) gloves and extra socks
      (4) Shoes for everyday and boots for the rainy ones
      (5) A sleeping bag or blankets
      (6) Plastic, a waterproof tarp (better have two because you’ll need one for the ground and another overhead) or a tent.
      (7) Some rope or cord
      (8) A decent sized knife or a small hatchet and preferably a shovel
      (9) Rain Gear or at least a poncho for the rain because wet clothing can mean death..
      (10) Personal hygiene items like tooth brush … etc
      (11) A decent set of clean clothing if looking for work
      (12) A book or two because boredom is guaranteed
      (13) At least one pot or pan for cooking and plenty of dry matches
      (14) Food and be prepared to sustain on a lot of canned food because refrigeration is out unless you add an ice chest and ice to this list.
      (15) A lantern and fuel or a flashlight with an ample supply of batteries
      (16) Toilet paper
      And you’ll need to decide how to transport your new (even though hopefully temporary) life. If it is a shopping cart, remember, you must keep everything with you always and try and make a little room for some personal mementos. The most important rule is that you begin with zero cash, rely solely on your own self for survival (no cheaters) and not reveal yourself as a novice to anyone, especially the police.

      I promise you all with a money back guarantee that you will change your idea about homeless people. That is, if you make it through the three day period so Good Luck. To the others who are too frightened to actually understand reality, please give generously to the homeless and without restrictions. Lets face it, a homeless person who deals with these kinds of struggles every single day, deserves a drink more than any of us who take it for granted.

    • cember12

      I have mixed feeling about tent city. I have two children by a man that leaves there. Two beautiful child. We have tried and tried to help him. Got him an apartment, to a house to a job and then another job and another job till finally we have stopped. Drugs has been his choice of life and we are no longer fighting to help. I would be homeless too if I drank like he does and use drugs. This is has been going on for 25 years. Our last efforts were in march when my son offered him a ticket to his city where he lives and a job on arrival and he said no yet again. Him and his brother with him under the bridge in Tent city are chossing that way of life because its acceptable there to be on drugs and to be drunk at noon. I have had two kids with broken hearts that have been without their fahter over the years. No child support. No love for them. No caring for the other side of this tent city story. Go talk to these people families. Give their kids something for christmas because mine done without most of the time.

    • Arcflash

      That is a very touching story and what touched me even more than the plight of the homeless is the fact that there are still genuine human beings aware of their humanity and the plight of fellow members of the human race. In all honesty this article has caused me to have another look at my position which had reached the point of outrage with the fascist thugs hiding behind a badge and uniform and the attrocities frequently metted out by them. I had reached the point of longing for the shtf and wrol to take place so that I could do my part in exterminating some of the fascist thugs.

    • Anonymous

      DO NOT give money out to random people who tell a nice story.

      I’ve never once encountered a homeless encampment like this and we have several in my city. They are disgusting, flithy criminals, rapists, child molesters, drug addicts, alcoholics, and worse. I’ve lived among a few of them just for the experience (I was not homeless). There was never once, not never, not never ever any single person who was “down on their luck.”

      Now, obviously my anecdotal experiences are not representative of all similar places. However, i find it highly unlikely that this particular incident (the very occurrence of which is in question) resulted in a find of pure, wholesome Americana.

      TLDR; If are compelled to give, donate time or tangibles through a reputable organization in your area. Not some random ass Facebook page.

    • Attaboyslim

      The person posting as Anonymous and bashing ALL homeless is a Buffoon but out of curiosity, how long have you had this gift of all knowing and all seeing genius or is this just an egotistical God complex that you suffer from which seems logical based on that idiotic comment.

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