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Helping Heroes: a local non-profit’s mission to house South Carolina’s homeless population

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Nearly a quarter of South Carolina’s homeless population lives right here in Horry County and many of those people are combat veterans.

One local organization has been chipping away at those alarming statistics for several years, but says this area remains the state’s homeless mecca.

Conor McCue spent some time with that organization to see how they are tackling this tough task. 

At a time when most people are still asleep, Stephen Stevens heads to work, making trips to places most wouldn’t dare.

“I go out into the woods, soup kitchens, shelters, and abandoned houses in 12 different counties in South Carolina and seek out veterans who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless,” Stephens said, while starting his first drive of the day.

On this drive, we headed somewhere within Horry County. We’ll keep the exact spot a secret to protect those living there.

Stephens says the locations are often hidden away, and take some work to find.

“I just think of where I would be if I was out here,” he said.

Stevens is one of more than a dozen people who works for the Eastern Carolina Homelessness Organization, better known as ECHO.

The 28-year combat vet now uses his unique skill set to seek out homeless veterans, and help them find the home they deserve.

The first step is finding them, then he has to build their trust.

“Morning! How’re you doing? “ asked Stephens as we pulled up behind a dumpster to find nearly a half dozen homeless folks waiting. “Hanging in there? I got some goodies for you.”

This group Stephens found doesn’t have any veterans, but he offers up the same kind of help.

He says the group is now stand-offish, because just last week, two men stormed their campsite.

“It really upsets me,” Stephens said. “It really makes you appreciate what you have."

After repeated visits, some in the camp are finally ready for what Stephens is offering.

“What we’ve got to do is get your ID first, before we go to the Social Security office,” Stephens says to the first woman he talks with.

His first target is Mary Bonis. “I have been on the streets for almost 15 years,” Bonis told us.

Bonis is not ready to change her lifestyle, but could use some help signing up for social security benefits.

“They tell me all the time, we’re one step away from you,” Bonis said about ECHO’s continued efforts to help her.

Stephens now knows where to find her, and plans to help her with the paperwork in the next few days.

“So it’s you, your son, and her?” Stephens asked the next person in line.

Next up is finding a new home for Kenny Manier’s family.

“We have low income housing and we can house you,” he tells Manier after a quick phone call with the office.

Manier’s family recently moved back to the area from out west, and can’t seem to catch a break.

The three trekked all the way from Las Vegas, hoping the sunshine and seasonal jobs in Myrtle Beach would help turn things around.

“It’s hard on all of us,” said Manier. “She doesn’t like me in this situation, she doesn’t like being in this separated situation. It isn’t by choice.”

Within minutes, ECHO has a three bedroom apartment lined up that Manier can afford with what little he currently makes.

“It’s a good feeling to me,” Stephens explained to us. “It’s better than money, to know that you helped out a family.”

Since last December, Stephens and ECHO have housed nearly 600 people in Northeastern South Carolina.

They'll house even more by the end of this year.

The man known for his camo cowboy hat says the trick to turning around that many lives is keeping simple promises.

He showed this off when we made a quick stop by a homeless veteran that Stephens is working to bring into the program.

“Alright brother, I’ll get back in touch. Take care, I love you. Take care man,” Stephens told him after a short conversation.

“A lot of people say that and they don’t show up,” said Kenny Manier, when asked about why Stephens is so successful in getting people off the streets. “A lot of people have good intentions but they just don’t show up. With him showing up, that means a lot.”

Stevens and his coworkers always show up, because in some way, each of them understands the struggle.

Stevens spent three decades fighting in the military, and knows the tough adjustments with coming back home.

On top of that, 6 of his 13 coworkers were homeless at some point in their lives.

“It kind of gives you a whole different view of life, because any one of us could be out there,” Stephens told us on the drive back. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but they’re a step away from being homeless.”

With those experiences, the workers know these people are just a step away from being housed, if they simply knew what resources were out there.

Stevens wishes more people would work to provide those resources, but for now, he’ll be out there making sure every vet and homeless person knows they have an ally.

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