ROCKINGHAM — Don’t tell Dustin Coke the homeless are a lost cause. He says he’s living proof that people lost on the streets can find their way back into society.
The unofficial leader of a fledgling group dedicated to establishing a homeless shelter in Richmond County, Coke used to collapse in his car after all-night crack cocaine benders. Today, he’s a family man and small-business owner who wants to lead others in Rockingham to their own second chances.
“When I was 18 years old, I did LSD, mescaline, cocaine, crack, meth, the whole nine yards — everything I could get my hands on,” Coke said. “I completely gave up on life. I was in and out of mental health and rehab.”
Coke turned to drugs after his father and stepdad died, he said. Clean and sober for years, he said homeless men and women struggling with substance abuse can turn their lives around, too. Someone just has to give them the chance.
“When somebody realizes you can relate to them, that you’ve been in a similar situation, and they see your free will and your passion, that will spark hope,” he said. “We have to show them that no matter how bad off they are, we still care. We have to show them compassion and hope that it sparks hope. We hope they believe in themselves like the people behind them believe in them.”
The owner of 2nd Chance Roofing in Rockingham, Coke read a May 28 Daily Journal story about police dismantling a campsite homeless men and women had set up near the railroad tracks. He met Mark Joplin, Donnie DeBerry and a handful of other concerned residents through Facebook discussions about the dispersal.
Days later, the new acquaintances formed the grassroots volunteer group Helping the Homeless of Rockingham and were planning ways to reach out to the city’s homeless population.
“They’re basically living in hell right now,” Coke said. “They’re people like us. That could happen to every one of us. One day, everything could be gone.”
Nearly two-dozen people attended the group’s first meeting last Saturday at the Hitchcock Creek Blue Trail access on Steele Street. Participants quickly agreed that returning a permanent homeless shelter to Rockingham will be their long-term goal, but in the meantime, a new campsite can provide basic shelter from the elements.
TENT CITY PLANNED
Helping the Homeless of Rockingham has found a property owner willing to allow the group to establish a tent city for homeless men and women in a wooded area, organizers said Saturday. The compound will consist of tents, folding tables, outdoor common areas and portable toilets.
“It’s just an immediate option to get them to stay in an environment that’s safe,” Joplin said.
Any homeless person will be welcomed into the fold, but those caught drinking or doing drugs will be asked to leave. Members said they’ll be on hand to ensure that rules are followed and that the tent city provides a safe atmosphere.
A well-run campsite would show neighbors and city officials that they have nothing to fear from the group of homeless people, Joplin explained. After a fire destroyed the Baker House homeless shelter on Hancock Street last August, residents who live nearby lobbied city officials to block the Mental Health Society of Richmond County’s request to rebuild the structure, citing high crime in their neighborhood.
“Here in Richmond County, there’s such a stigma about homelessness,” said Jennifer Taylor of Hamlet. “A tent city, it’s not optimal, it’s not ideal, but you can have them there for a period of time where people see this exists, this exists peacefully, this exists with minimal crime.”
Joplin added that an orderly, well-run homeless camp could help them gain citywide support for a permanent shelter.
“The more the tent city is here and the less issues that occur while it is here, the more likely they are to let them assimilate back into the community,” he said.
Rockingham’s planning and zoning staff have not received an application for such a compund in the city limits, City Manager Monty Crump said Tuesday. In order for a tent city to operate in accordance with city rules, he said, it would have to be established in an area zoned for a campsite.
“They need to come up with a proposal and submit it just like everyone else does,” Crump said.
If zoning regulations are used to shut down the tent city, Coke and Joplin said, the camp could quickly be moved to an alternate site.
Joplin said raising awareness and public support for the tent city might deter city officials from breaking up the compound.
“They are going to be less apt to do it if people know,” he said.
The group wasn’t sure how many homeless residents would seek refuge in the tent city. Between 20 and 27 people stayed at the Baker House each night, and there are other homeless men and women who have continuously lived outdoors.
PAYING IT FORWARD
Coke told the folks who gathered under the Hitchcock Creek picnic shelter Saturday morning about a homeless man he befriended. The man’s rarely seen without a tall-boy beer can in his hand, but that didn’t stop Coke from making the effort.
“I can’t just condemn him,” Coke said. “That may be the reason he’s drinking right now — because too many people have thrown him out.”
Coke drove the man to his home, fed him a hearty meal, let him shower and change clothes and tossed a football around with him in the yard.
“He’s still drinking,” Coke said, “but it’s starting to slow down because he realizes that people care about him.”
The homeless man saw Coke running a weed trimmer in his yard and, out of gratitude, took the tool from his new friend and completed the chore. When Coke saw the man with another can of beer the next day, he offered positive reinforcement rather than judgment.
“I said, ‘You were sober yesterday and you had a great day,’” Coke recalled. “’You can be sober today and have another good day.’”
Coke often hires homeless workers to assist him on roofing jobs. He said the only reward he seeks is the feeling of fulfillment it brings him to help his fellow man.
“I feel the greatest when I help somebody — when I see the smile on their face, when I see the love and appreciation in their eyes,” he said.
Helping the Homeless of Rockingham members hope that feeling is infectious. As the group evolves, Coke believes the spirit of selflessness will inspire generosity even from those who have the least to give.
“Ultimately, we want to spark it within the homeless themselves,” he said. “When you have the homeless helping the homeless, that is a real start. When you haven’t eaten in three days and you give your only piece of cornbread to the person next to you, that sparks something that I don’t know how to describe. It’s so wonderful.”
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-997-3111, ext. 13.