By Sarah Nagem
Tina Bowen maneuvered “Miss Dorothy,” a 30-foot utility truck she converted to a mobile laundry unit, into the parking lot of CrossWay church in Pembroke.
The thrum of the engine stirred Michael Locklear, who was huddled under a sleeping bag next to the church, bracing himself against the cold. Temperatures dipped into the low 20s the night before and were still in the 30s by mid-morning.
As Bowen began to haul pipes out of the truck and connect water lines, Locklear gathered his dirty clothes to be washed and dried.
Bowen, the founder and executive director of Suds of Love, knows she can’t solve all the problems of homelessness in rural southeastern North Carolina. But she can help people in need regain a bit of dignity, one clean pair of socks at a time.
“It’s a blessing,” Locklear, 57, said of Suds of Love, which he visited for the first time on Thursday morning.
Bowen, a retired special education teacher who lives in Lumberton, started Suds of Love last fall. She takes the truck, which is equipped with two washers, three dryers and a shower, throughout Robeson, Bladen, Hoke and Scotland counties.
It’s not just about clean clothes, Bowen said. Through spin cycles and the thump-thump of the dryers, she talks to people — about anything and everything.
Locklear, who said he has been homeless for a few months, chatted about his faith in God and his hope to move somewhere warmer. “This cold weather kills me,” he said.
Bowen never wants to pry.
“I’m not here to figure out why they’re not working, whether they have substance abuse, why they are choosing this life,” she said. “I’m just here to be kind.”
Still, Bowen gets a unique glimpse into homelessness within the counties she serves, which are among the poorest in North Carolina. In Robeson County, 26% of residents live in poverty, double the statewide rate. Nearly a third of households in Robeson County are considered cost-burdened because they spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
Homelessness across the country reached a record high in 2023, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In North Carolina, the number of people experiencing homelessness increased by 42% between 2020 and 2022, data shows.
Seventy people in Robeson County were identified as homeless last year during the annual “point in time” count, according to the North Carolina Balance of State Continuum of Care. But the number is likely much higher, said Latonya Agard, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. That’s because some people who are homeless might have stayed with a friend or family member or in a motel that night. (In 2020, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 84 people were identified as homeless in the county.)
Fewer people were identified as homeless in smaller, neighboring counties: 18 in Columbus County, 14 in Scotland County and three in Bladen County.
Volunteers will set out later this month to once again identify the number of people who are homeless in local counties — those sleeping in tents, cars, churches or shelters.
As a teacher in Scotland County and other districts across the state, Bowen saw how dirty clothing can affect students.
“I had kids when I taught high school who refused to come to school because they didn’t have clean clothes,” Bowen said, adding that she would take their laundry home with her to wash.
She said one student was living in a camper in the woods with his family. “They were going down to a creek to wash their clothes.”
Bowen, 57, felt called to help. Watts Water Technologies, where her husband works, donated the truck that is now “Miss Dorothy,” and several other local businesses pitched in. As a nonprofit, her organization also receives some grant funding.
In addition to being a laundry service, Suds of Love has donated 25 sets of washers and dryers to schools in North Carolina and South Carolina with the help of donors.
One school principal called the laundry set a “game changer,” explaining that children can’t reach their full potential if their basic needs are not met, Bowen said.
“I’ve had kids in situations that I wouldn’t let my dog live in,” she said. “How can we expect them to do their best?”
Eleven of the 70 people identified as homeless in Robeson County last year were ages 17 and younger, according to the Balance of State Continuum of Care.
Gabriella Rodriguez, 20, is learning how to navigate early adulthood while being homeless. She said she attended UNC Pembroke for a while and can’t go home to her family because of safety concerns.
Rodriguez and her boyfriend, Travis Jones, have been sleeping behind CrossWay church in two tents they put together. On Thursday, the couple had gallon-size jugs of Hawaiian Punch and a stuffed Mickey Mouse doll wearing a shirt with a picture of Jones’ 5-month-old son who died in October of COVID-19.
Jones, 31, said he lost his job when his son was sick. His grandmother died a month later, he said, and by December he was living on the streets. He could stay with his mother and sister, he said, but he doesn’t like their strict rules.
“I can’t be shut up in a room all the time,” Jones said as he and Rodriguez sat near their tents. “I feel free when I’m out here.”
Locklear, who said he is a welder by trade but can no longer work because he injured his shoulder on the job, wants stable housing. But the $500 or so he receives each month in Social Security benefits isn’t enough for rent and food.
When he can, Locklear pays $7 to have lunch at Fuller’s barbecue restaurant across the street. He also likes to buy coffee at a nearby gas station, but he said the workers have threatened to stop serving people who are homeless. Lately, he has been picking pecans and selling them.
He dreams of going to Florida — “somewhere warmer, where the weather won’t be so hard on my bones.”
'Who am I to judge?'
People everywhere who are unsheltered experience innumerable dangers, from extreme temperatures to the heightened risk of violence. Those in poor, rural areas like Robeson County can face additional hurdles, including limited public transportation and few shelters.
“Rural communities are not as well-resourced as urban communities,” said Agard with the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. “That makes being homeless very different.”
Robeson County’s only homeless shelter, the Lumberton Christian Care Center, is about 12 miles from Pembroke. The center has space for 20 people but accommodates more on “white flag” nights during extreme weather, including freezing temperatures.
“We put cots where we can put a cot, said Clementine Thompson McCormick, the center’s executive director. “We just want to get them in out of the cold.”
But there’s not enough room for everyone. So for more than a year, the Robeson County Church and Community Center has been paying for hotel rooms for unsheltered people.
RCCC has plans to build Pallet shelters – small structures that are much cheaper than traditional homes — to serve as transitional housing at its campus on Fifth Street in Lumberton. Work began a couple of months ago when crews replaced part of a fence. But the organization wants to hold off on construction until it has enough money to operate for three or four years, said Brianna Goodwin, RCCC’s executive director.
Goodwin said it will cost about $400,000 a year to cover staff, utilities and medical expenses for residents. She hopes to secure money from the General Assembly and also from Lumberton and Robeson County.
The city gives RCCC $5,000 a year to help pay utility bills for people in need, Goodwin said.
Holt Moore, Lumberton’s city attorney, said officials are considering partnering with RCCC for the housing project. One concern, he said, is whether unsheltered people from other parts of town would be willing to participate.
“Honestly,” Moore said, “we don’t want to spend several hundred thousand dollars and have it empty.”
Goodwin said the lack of funding from the city is frustrating. So is the city’s new proposal to crack down on panhandling, she said.
The way Bowen sees it, kindness and compassion can go a long way to helping those in need. A few detours in anyone’s life could lead to homelessness.
“Things happen,” Bowen said. “Who am I to judge?”