Place of Grace: ‘It works, it works, it works’

Tent city tour opens ladies’ eyes to plight of homeless 

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

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EAST ROCKINGHAM — Mark Joplin considers himself to be a good judge of character.

At the end of a tour Friday of Place of Grace, a temporary tent city established on 25 acres behind New Life Church on Airport Road in East Rockingham, Jopling offered descriptions of the five women being led through the area.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Place of Grace, a tent city in East Rockingham intended to be a transitional residence for the area's homeless, is never strays from its Christian base.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Place of Grace, a tent city in East Rockingham intended to be a transitional residence for the area’s homeless, is never strays from its Christian base.

“You have a soul that won’t quit,” he said to one lady. To another: You have the spirit of giving. You’ll help the most.

And to Cindy Coble: “You’re the most critical … inquisitive,” said Joplin, of Transitional Services of Richmond County, the group that worked with New Life Church Pastor Gary Richardson to make use of the land.

But Coble, of Rockingham, replied that she wasn’t judging the facility. She was too busy judging herself. Coble said she felt guilty that a medical issue would limit her from providing physical assistance at Place of Grace.

But that won’t stop the member of St. Paul United Methodist Church from rallying the troops.

“I’m going to my church … You’re not going to believe what they’re gonna be hearing from me,” Coble said.

Coble joined Suzanne Scott, Lynn Lunceford and the mother-daughter duo of Christy McCoy and Amber McSwain on an hour-long walking tour of what is billed as “a temporary problem to a permanent solution.” Through the unisex outdoor shower. The administration tent. The areas marked off for women, men, veterans and victims of domestic violence. The supply tent, partially filled with the first load of donated non-perishable food items.

The area originally was nothing more than some overgrown tumbleweeds. With time, Joplin and the rest of a core group of volunteers have helped transform a patch of grass into home — albeit a temporary one. Walking paths are marked by browned, fallen pine needles swept into loose barriers. Yard lights are strategically placed at key points. Wooden signs were placed to point towards the area for men (left), veterans (further left) and women and children (right). Wooden stakes, including some in the shape of a cross, serve as anchors to keep the supply and administration tents in place.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Amber McSwain helps unload a donation for Place of Grace.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Amber McSwain helps deliver a donation for Place of Grace.

“Nothing here is permanent,” Joplin said.

That includes the intended length of stay for anyone homeless who arrives on the figurative doorstep of Place of Grace. The idea is that as soon as someone shows up, they’re afforded all the accommodations there are to offer — and directed towards the resources that can get them out of such a situation. During intake, Jopling said a volunteer will identify social service needs of the new tent city resident.

“Our side is to access the resources,” Joplin said. It’s up to the individual to take advantage of those resources, and there are consequences if that doesn’t happen.

Week one might go by and not much would be said. In the second week, someone would help the resident identify barriers to accessing those social services — real or perceived — and help develop a plan to conquer the obstacles. By the third week, Place of Grace volunteers might form a consensus: “Maybe we might not be what you’re needing,” Joplin said.

By the fourth week, the person could be asked to leave. There are some exceptions. A little leeway could be given to victims of domestic violence. Or veterans managing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Christy McCoy, herself a victim of domestic violent and formerly homeless, as a keen insight into what the residents of Place of Grace are facing.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Christy McCoy, herself a victim of domestic violent and formerly homeless, as a keen insight into what the residents of Place of Grace are facing.

“Veterans … they might be here longer than the others,” he said. ” They’re very touchy. They’re on edge. We won’t coddle them; we’ll understand them.”

For anyone, though, “showing up is a sign of their willingness to work.”

There’s already a success story. With the help of a legion of heart and a few good people, a mother and her three children found permanent housing. Joplin leads the group on, his back to them.

“It works, it works it works,” he said, either to himself or the others. Or to no one.

Joplin leads the five women through the tour, which a Joplin-guided summary of the past, present and future, rules and requirements and more. The walk also seems to serve as a way for Joplin to continue adding to his list of things to do. At some points, one isn’t sure if he’s talking to the group or himself.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Mark Joplin, left, leads Lynn Lunceford (pink), Amber McSwain (blue and white), Suzanne Scott and Cindy Coble (right) on a tour of Place of Grace tent city Friday in East Rockingham.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Mark Joplin, left, leads Lynn Lunceford (pink), Amber McSwain (blue and white), Suzanne Scott and Cindy Coble (right) on a tour of Place of Grace tent city Friday in East Rockingham.

Joplin, an Army veteran and only a few years into his life in Richmond County, mixes the official tour with some personal stories. He opens up, even without meaning to.

He was baptized in 2010. He had been having issues of crying at night. A pastor told him that “God’s knockin’.”

Joplin opened the door.

“I haven’t cried since,” he said.

He moves on.

“Right where you’re standing,” he points, “the Girl Scouts are coming to build a fire pit.”

McSwain is full of giving. She tells Joplin she and her husband might have a water bag for water. There’s more.

Would you like any children’s toys?

“Give ’em to me,” Joplin responds without hesitation. Then he expands.

“That’s an odd question. I’ll take everything you’ve got.”

He makes a point. Read it twice to be sure it’s understood.

“I’ll take all the help I can get, ” he tells the women, all eager to volunteer or help in some way. “I don’t care if you’re here or not. I’m doin’ it anyway.

Can we bring a meal?

“You can do anything you want,” Joplin said.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Mark Joplin talks with Amber McSwain about the needs of the camp.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Mark Joplin talks with Amber McSwain about the needs of the camp.

The tour is nearing its conclusion. McSwain speaks out.

“This whole time … I’ve been trying to hold back tears,” she said.

She seems to have finally found an outlet, a place willing to receive what she wants to give. Joplin understands.

“Never in my life have I worked harder,” he said of the past few months’ effort to get things into place. “Nothing has been more fulfilling.”

Winter’s coming. Place of Grace is ready. Tent city residents will hunker down and simply dress for the occasion, Joplin said. If it’s below 32 degrees, the law says Place of Grace must offer residents a place indoors. That will happen, but “most people won’t go in.”

Whatever the problem is, Joplin said, there either is a solution or there isn’t.

“I’m not afraid of the answer because I’ve asked the question many, many times. There’s no such thing as a problem. If you can’t solve it, why keep it as a problem?”

Joplin said the fear that gushed from the people of Richmond County has largely abated.

Scott sympathizes.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com The admin tent is where the volunteers on call will be headquartered.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
The admin tent is where the volunteers on call will be headquartered.

“I’ve heard this fear,” she said that comes from a lack of trust. “I want to break that down.”

Joplin indicates that fear is not a bad thing — unless it’s paralyzing.

“I have all the respect in their fear,” he said. What gets me (is when) fear prevents them from learning.”

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