ROCKINGHAM — Concerned residents are banding together to help the city’s homeless population.
Helping the Homeless of Rockingham has formed with the goal of taking immediate action to help recently displaced homeless men and women. Founder Dustin Coke, a local business owner, said the group seeks to set politics and differences of opinion aside. Its sole mission is to make tangible improvements in homeless people’s lives.
“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.”
The group has planned its first meeting — a brainstorming session dubbed Rally for the Homeless — for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Hitchcock Creek Blue Trail and Greenway on Steele Street.
City leaders in March denied the Mental Health Society of Richmond County’s request to rebuild the Baker House homeless shelter on South Hancock Street. An August 2013 fire in a vacant adjoining building gutted the historic structure, which a demolition crew tore down last week.
Rockingham police dismantled a campsite where homeless people lived this month while their former refuge was being razed. Authorities said the men and women were trespassing on railroad-owned property and railroad police wanted them removed.
Coke started an open Facebook group under the name Helping the Homeless of Rockingham on Thursday, and 14 people joined in as many hours. He hopes more homeless advocates and concerned city residents will join.
Coke met Ronald Brigman in a Facebook discussion and said the two had a misunderstanding at first.
“It seemed like we were on different sides of the fence,” Coke said. “But we soon realized we wanted the same thing, but were just saying it in different ways.”
He thinks people can relate to that, and that getting past personal differences and joining forces for a common cause is the only way out of the stalemate between those who want to make a positive change and those who don’t know how or where to begin. Brigman will play an important role in the new group’s formation, Coke said, as will every member.
Coke, owner of 2nd Chance Roofing in Rockingham, said he believes people should be aware it could easily be them scrambling for a home.
“People tend to want to believe every homeless person became homeless because of drugs or alcohol or other addictions,” Coke said. “What they don’t understand is so many people live from one paycheck to the next, and all it takes is one major hit to bring them down. A lot of times, it’s becoming homeless and losing everything that causes the drug use and dependency. It makes people want to give up on life. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
The group’s immediate goal is to find a temporary but consistent way to address the lack of shelter from the elements. Coke said he knows that tents and blankets have repeatedly been taken away from people for whom he’s personally bought the items. Other advocates reported similar problems.
“We need to secure a location for a new tent city for the homeless, and it needs to be somewhere they can’t be run off from,” Coke said. “It needs to be protected. Shuffling them from one place to another only to have their possessions confiscated during raids is getting us nowhere.”
Coke invites anyone and everyone to attend the Rally for the Homeless on Saturday morning and join the Facebook group Helping the Homeless of Rockingham. For more information, call Dustin Coke at 910-434-8436.
Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-997-3111, ext. 15.