Some slept outside all night at Armory Park to be first in line for help. Others arrived in the darkness. Then came the masses as the sun rose Thursday, arriving on CARTA buses, in disabled veterans transport vans or simply on foot.
About 1,000 people facing homelessness or near homelessness lined up around the building for the 14th annual Stand Down Against Homelessness event. They came to the North Charleston park in need of everything from clothing and medical care to job leads and legal aide.
Free hair cuts proved among the most popular stations.
Melanie Bartmess waited her turn for a trim, chatting with those around her. She recently became unemployed and, while she still has a car and a roof over her head, has run out of money. She doesn’t know where to turn.
“I came to see what resources I could get,” Bartmess said. She found free breakfast and pro bono legal help to deal with a home foreclosure.
Behind her in line, a little boy in a Spiderman sweatshirt slipped shyly into a chair to wait for a trim.
Among volunteers greeting attendees was Mary Ann Glover Mason, who just a few years ago lived in Crisis Ministries’ veterans housing while getting substance-abuse treatment at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. Today, she rents her own place with her teenage daughter and works at the VA hospital, helping homeless veterans find jobs.
“I am basically helping who I was,” Mason said. “I love it.”
Hers is a common story here, one of people hitting hard times — often due to sudden job loss or ongoing substance abuse — and trying to overcome. Many lack an address or telephone number.
Gerald Montgomery, a veteran with a winsome smile and a radio announcer’s voice, found himself in that predicament. He worked as a process control technician until his plant in Berkeley County closed and he couldn’t find another job.
He wound up sleeping outside — in parking lots, alongside buildings, wherever he could.
People shouted things like, “Get a job!”
“It’s not what people think,” Montgomery said. “I never thought I’d be in this situation. You feel so alone.”
Just a few weeks ago, the 48-year-old went to the VA medical center and found help.
He has just moved into veterans’ transitional housing and is looking for a job. Suddenly, he can apply for them again because he has a telephone, an address and help to launch himself back into a productive life.
“I am eternally grateful,” Montgomery said.
The Stand Down provided him and the 1,000 others who gathered access to such help as free flu shots, dental and medical screenings, heavy duty duffel bags and Goodwill clothing, from underwear to winter coats. The event, hosted by the Johnson VA Medical Center and Goodwill Industries, included music and meals.
Prospective employers on hand included Hardees, Lowes, Home Depot, Detyens Shipyard, Spinx, Verizon, the SC. Ports Authority and T-Mobile.
The Stand Down continues Friday at 8 a.m. at Armory Park.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.