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BEAUFORT -- Calvin Fillinger was a roofer. After 24 years, he could do almost three times the work of a beginning roofer in the same amount of time, he says. '
He was paid enough to support his wife of 25 years and their seven children. For a while, things were fine.'
But in December, while working on a military housing project in Laurel Bay, Fillinger fell 10 feet from a roof, tearing a ligament in his leg and chipping his patella. '
Working again was out of the question until he had surgery and time to recover.'
His wife stays at home to care for the children.'
The injury hurt his entire family, he says. Six days after the fall, Fillinger got both a termination notice and an eviction notice from the general contractor that employed him. Part of his paycheck had gone toward the rent on the house, which the company had arranged for him.'
Fillinger said he expected the company, which he did not want to name, to place him on disability.'
He did not expect to be fired and evicted.'
"I didn't think people could do you that way," he said.'
He tried to get workers' compensation on his own, but said he finally had to hire a lawyer to help. '
The wait for a decision on the claim has drained his savings.'
Fillinger, his wife and five of his children moved into a cramped two-bed hotel room and now are waiting for his income-tax return to arrive.'
They borrowed from Fillinger's father to make ends meet, but that money soon ran out. '
Now they have little food and no way to do laundry.'
Last week, when the family realized they had only enough money for one more day at the hotel, they began to look for help.'
"We were shocked to find out there's not much out there," Fillinger said. "I don't like to take charity or anything. But I'm at the point where I don't know what I'm going to do."'
The Fillingers' situation has become increasingly common in the Lowcountry, said Becky Van Wie, associate director of the Low Country Continuum of Care Partnership.'
"A growing group of folks are people who are barely making it," she said. "Then something happens, some kind of emergency, and they fall off the cliff."'
OPEN EYES, OPEN HEARTS'
Fillinger called the Okatie Presbyterian Church, which paid for several more nights at the hotel and gave the family canned goods.'
That response is common here.'
Without a shelter and services targeting the various needs of the homeless, the burden of helping often falls to local churches, said John Ring, assistant minister at Okatie Presbyterian.'
"Very clearly, Jesus said take care of those thirsty, hungry and naked," he said. "That's what this is all about. It's going to fall to us."'
Beaufort County is full of generous residents, local nonprofits say. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are donated to the Deep Well Project and United Way each year.'
But much more needs to be done, said Susan Milne, director of the Beaufort County Alliance for Human Services.'
Like the Fillingers, many people have jobs but struggle to keep up with rising costs of living and a housing market considered among the most expensive in the state.'
"It's not a one-solution problem," said Shirley Wilkins, housing coordinator for the county. "Individuals are down on their luck because of economics, not having work and not having the skills to get good jobs.'
"It's going to take an affordable-housing initiative as well as support from economic partners and working with technical colleges to get people skilled to do the work."'
Affordable housing is among the top goals for Bluffton Town Council this year. The town has one of the only known affordable housing neighborhoods in the county, the roughly 60-home Brendan Woods.'
The neighborhood, developed by Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity, consists of homes built by volunteers and residents with lower incomes. Habitat arranged for less costly mortgages.'
But Pat Wirth, director of Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity, said the organization is running out of land on which to build.'
Under Habitat's program, applicants must have a job and be able to afford a mortgage. Many don't qualify.'
"Life changes in almost every aspect for these people when they get decent housing," Wirth said. "We can't do it alone. The community has to not only open their eyes, they have to open their hearts."'
Faced with limited resources to address homelessness and poverty, more local nonprofits are working on creative solutions.'
In November, the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry granted $52,688 to ACCESS Network. ACCESS, which typically has helped people who are HIV positive, plans to do long-term case management with homeless people to help get them back on their feet.'
Many nonprofits stress the need for a homeless shelter in Beaufort County. '
The Beaufort County Family Promise program is working with local churches to provide shelters that rotate from church to church and keep families together while they're being helped. Case workers will be on hand to help find jobs.'
"You don't want homeless families because things tend to be generational," said the county alliance's Milne. She hopes to have the program running sometime next year.'
Some believe the problem of homelessness won't be solved until public perceptions change.'
"Americans value self-sufficiency, independence and upward mobility," said Karen Kouzmanoff, the alliance's program coordinator. "Homelessness represents the antithesis of that. They're judged to be unworthy."'
FINDING A WAY'
The Fillingers didn't have the means to celebrate one of their son's birthdays last week. They kept one of their children out of school because the child's clothes were dirty and there was no money for the laundry.'
"The stress is overwhelming," said Karen Fillinger. "It's tearing us down bad. This has had a tremendous impact on Calvin, knowing he can't provide."'
Calvin and Karen Fillinger sat on a bed in their hotel room and wondered how they ended up there.'
"Everything has just spiraled to the bottom," Karen said, putting her hand to her forehead and looking at her kids watching cartoons from the other bed.'
"Everything happens for a reason," Calvin said.'
"We'll find a way."