Last updated: May 31. 2014 7:33AM - 602 Views
By - cfriedman@civitasmedia.com - 910-817-2670

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With no place to call home and no more possessions than they could carry, they probably thought life in Rockingham couldn’t get much harder. But compared to the past nine months, those were the good old days.

Fire gutted their shelter. City officials turned away an effort to rebuild. Then police dismantled their tent city near the railroad tracks, dispersing Rockingham’s homeless population into the elements. What’s more, they tell us, police are warning them to stay off the streets at night.

For a city that prides itself on old-fashioned Southern hospitality, Rockingham doesn’t seem like a very friendly or tolerant place if you’re living on society’s margins. But concerned residents are coming forward to lend a helping hand to the down and out.

Local business owner Dustin Coke is working with a handful of like-minded people who want to help improve conditions for homeless men and women. The group Helping the Homeless of Rockingham formed after a story in Wednesday’s edition of the Daily Journal shed light on the dire predicament many residents without shelter now face.

“I’m not here to stir anything up or cause division,” Coke said. “But what’s happening to the homeless here lately just isn’t right. Officials say ‘the people’ want the homeless to disappear from Rockingham. Well, that’s not what I hear. We, the people of Rockingham, the ones I’ve talked to, want to do right by these people. It doesn’t matter if they’re homeless. They are people. We are people. Something has to be done.”

We think Coke hits the nail on the head. The right way forward is for our community — government, businesses, churches, civic groups and families — to reach out to the homeless with compassion and understanding.

Bowing to pressure from residents who said the Baker House brought crime and social ills to their neighborhood, the Rockingham Board of Adjustment denied the Mental Health Society of Richmond County’s request for a conditional-use permit that would have allowed the shelter to be rebuilt.

While we’re not unsympathetic to the neighbors’ concerns, the board could have sought to broker a compromise, with approval contingent on rules to make the shelter a better neighbor. City leaders missed an opportunity to lead.

Police said they had to run the homeless off from their campsite because railroad police with federal jurisdiction wanted them gone. Property owners have the right to send trespassers packing, and we can’t fault Rockingham officers for enforcing the law. But word from the homeless that their tents and tables were confiscated gives us pause. Seizing the property may have been lawful, but was it really the right thing to do?

For better or worse, what’s done is done. Coke’s fledgling group will focus not on past controversies, but on the steps we can take to help the homeless today. It’s a necessary and positive effort that deserves this community’s support.

It’s encouraging that private citizens are leading the effort to help homeless men and women in Rockingham. Solving this social problem isn’t government’s job. It’s a responsibility we share as a society.

People are lost on the streets of Rockingham, huddled in alleys, crouched beneath highway overpasses, seeking refuge in the woods. Some struggle with mental illness. Some succumb to drug and alcohol abuse. But they are people just the same.

How we choose to treat these people will speak volumes about our community. What can we do — what will we do — to help our fellow man?

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