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The Rev. Donald E. Greene Jr., president of the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, and North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess pray with Aleksander Guest-George at his encampment behind Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. Guest-George turned down a sleeping bag, saying he didn't like to take handouts and asked the group to give one to someone that needed it. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Dwayne Stafford's dwelling consists of flattened cardboard boxes behind a closed business on Rivers Avenue.

Even so, when it snowed last January in North Charleston, Stafford refused to enter a shelter.

When asked why, he shrugged.

"I just don't," he said. "I don't know."

There are several living like Stafford throughout the city — mainly in wooded areas along Rivers Avenue — who refuse to take refuge in homeless shelters, even when temperatures dip below freezing. But faith and city leaders still want to make sure those individuals are safe and comfortable during cold winter nights.

On Thursday, the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina announced a donation of 140 sleeping bags to the city that would be distributed by police officers to members of the homeless community. 

The convention started the initiative in Columbia where they donated more than 100 sleeping bags to those living on streets. After leaving North Charleston, they hope to serve Greenville and other cities across the state.

The Rev. Donald E. Greene Jr., who serves as president of the convention that includes more than 1,000 Baptist churches across the state, said that a sleeping bag isn't much. But it's a simple gesture to demonstrate God's love.

"The least we can do is keep them warm," Greene said. "We are all God's people."

The denomination helps the less fortunate in other ways too. Jerusalem Baptist Church at 3317 Meeting St. handed out several turkeys on Christmas. Other Baptist churches across the state function as homeless shelters and food banks as well.

Greene said the denomination can do more.

"We can all agree that the homeless need our help," he said.

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The Rev. Donald E. Greene Jr., president of the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina, and the Rev. Dr. H.L. Master II carry sleeping bags to a homeless man sleeping behind an abandoned furniture store on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. Lauren Petracca/Staff

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city directs homeless people to shelters. However, he noted that many people simply refuse those accommodations. Summey said police officers regularly swing by to make sure those residents are safe.

"Our concern is we've got a number of people that do not want to go to a shelter. They're very independent," he said. "We need to check on them and make sure their needs are being met as well. You can only help people to the level they want to be helped. But yet, we can help them. We can make sure they're safe."

One of those independent residents is Aleksander Guest-George, who lives in tents in the woods behind Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church on Rivers Avenue. When Summey, joined by Greene and North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess and several other pastors came to offer Guest-George some sleeping bags, he refused.

"I don't take anything I don't need," Guest-George said.

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Pastor Bernard Brown with Jerusalem Baptist Church helps a homeless man into a sleeping bag along Rivers Avenue in North Charleston on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Federal data showed that homelessness declined in South Carolina in 2017 by 22.5 percent. Many people though, like Greene, don't trust the data because they still see a heavy homeless population. 

For that reason, Greene said the faith community must continue to help the less fortunate.

"How do you gauge a number if they don't have a physical address?" he asked.

Outside North Charleston, churches in other municipalities have embraced the homeless community as well. Hibben United Methodist Church in Mount Pleasant offers hot meals and warm linen when temperatures drop below freezing. Goose Creek United Methodist also serves as a warming shelter, and hosts a soup kitchen two days every week.

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Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.

Rickey Dennis covers North Charleston and faith & values for the Post and Courier.

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