ROCKINGHAM — The Baker House on U.S. 1 is a pile of bricks and garbage now that demolition of the former homeless shelter is nearly complete.
Fire destroyed most of the structure in August and supporters believed the damage would only be a temporary setback.
But in March, the Rockingham Board of Adjustment rejected a conditional-use permit application that would have allowed the shelter to be rebuilt.
Carol Venable, a Richmond County Mental Health Society board member, is quick to offer encouragement on the state of homelessness in Rockingham even as the shelter’s being razed.
“Tearing down the Baker House is a symbol of our neglect of the homeless and those in need,” she said. “We are still working to help the homeless in our area, and we have help from several churches.”
During Winter Storm Pax, 16 churches, one business, one nonprofit group and one civic club pooled resources to rent three rooms for the homeless, Venable said. The rooms were temporarily equipped with bunk-style bedding to accommodate all who needed a safe, warm place to sleep.
The people who once sought refuge from the elements at the Baker House wandered down the railroad tracks and took up residence beneath the shelter of an overpass down a path behind the Chek Inn motel on West Broad Avenue. They stuck together there. They found a place to keep dry when it rains — and found safety in numbers.
Then one day last month, after the plans for the Baker House demolition were firmly in place, they were told they could no longer stay under the bridge.
Rufus Miller said he’s witnessed the best and worst in people during his years as a homeless man in Rockingham. According to him and other homeless people in the community, once the Baker House burned and they had nowhere to go, it was the police who directed them to head for the tracks and the bridge.
“They told us to go down there,” Miller said. “Then, they turn around and tell us to leave. But where are we gonna go? They showed up and gave us a day’s notice that we had to pack up our stuff and move, but there’s nowhere to move to.”
Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly said that the property the homeless were staying on belongs to the railroad, and that city police had received several complaints in the days leading up to the eviction.
“Mainly, the complaints were of people standing in the roadway,” Kelly said. “And there was a violent incident that took place as well. We did give them two or three days’ notice in advance. We operated on orders from the railroad police, who have federal powers.”
That violent incident involved another homeless man, James “Jimmy” McDuffie, who, according to Miller, was sleeping when two men none of them had met before pulled up in a car, approached the homeless people and began striking McDuffie’s head and face with rocks and bricks.
McDuffie was taken to FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital where he briefly stayed in the emergency room before being transferred to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst
FirstHealth of the Carolinas spokeswoman Emily Sloan confirmed McDuffie was admitted on May 14. One week later, he remained hospitalized in Moore County and was listed in fair condition, but has since been discharged.
Miller and another homeless man, Eric Taylor, each admitted the police department have given them advance notice that their tents and personal items on the railroad’s property would be confiscated if it was not moved, but that doesn’t make life without it any easier.
“Churches gave us this stuff,” Miller said. “They had tables and some chairs out here so we could eat together. They gave us some tents. This was our home, it was all we had. And where were we supposed to move it to? There’s nowhere for us to go.”
Taylor had his own ideas about where they would all wind up. He said police warned the homeless people to stay off the streets.
“They said if they see us on the streets, they’ll put us in jail,” he said. “I’ve been there and done that, and I can show you exactly what for.”
Taylor reached into his pocket and brought out a citation from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office for being intoxicated and disorderly. The address listed for him on the document is simply “streets of Rockingham.” His tent and all worldly belongings had been destroyed that day.
The churches continue to help the homeless, but now instead of meals down by the tracks, the food is delivered each evening to a house further up Caroline Street.
Rita Gibson and Chuck Thames of Richmond County Rescue Mission delivered the food prepared by First Methodist Church of Hamlet, along with bottled water, to Ray Staton’s house, the new distribution point. According to Thames, a different church prepares the meal every night, and volunteers from the rescue mission make deliveries.
“I was homeless one time,” Staton said. “But God blessed me with this place. And if I keep on helping others, he will bless me more.”
But in the neighborhood where Staton’s house stands, this level of goodwill is rare. Miller said that many of the homes are rentals, and people’s landlords have warned them against having homeless people on their porches or in their yards.
“Now, when it’s hot outside, they just all go into the woods,” Miller said. “Trying to stay cool under the trees. There’s nowhere else they can go. Then they come out at night, come eat and go back out to find somewhere to sleep. When it rains, it’s worse.”
The Baker House is gone. The tent city on the railroad property is gone. But the homeless are still there.
Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-997-3111, ext. 15.