HICKORY Terry Ledwell is 48, broke and openly sobbing as he lingers with two dozen other homeless people in a downtown parking lot.
Most of them prefer to stay in the woods surrounding this Catawba County town, but they’re here today because local resident Roger Cornett is giving away free camping gear, clothes and toiletries.
This, Ledwell says, is what his life has come to: from successful trucker to desperately homeless in just four years. All thanks to a traffic accident that left him disabled.
“It’s like everybody I ever knew has turned their back on me,” he says.
“I’m not a bum, you know. The bottom just fell out of my life.”
At times, he just wanted to end it all. Then Ledwell would run into Cornett passing out stuff in a parking lot and be told for the umpteenth time that Jesus was also a homeless man.
“Roger is doing something nobody else is doing,” Ledwell says. “He’s giving us hope.”
An unretired retiree
Roger Cornett is an impossible man to interrupt.
Ask one question, and he’ll just keep talking, throwing out idea after idea for helping the homeless, including bringing in unused FEMA trailers up from the post-Hurricane Katrina Gulf Coast.
Cornett, 59, is best described as an early retiree who couldn’t handle retirement. He says he was actually forced to retire from the furniture business, after being diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a condition similar to muscular dystrophy.
That was four years ago.
Now, he’s the full-time head of a charity, the Open Door Homeless Relief Project, which reaches out to the homeless people who prefer to live in the woods surrounding Hickory.
Cornett spends much of the week seeking out their camps. However, Open Door is best known for showing up every other week in the parking lot of Hickory’s Grace House homeless day center, where volunteers pass out necessities like tents, sleeping bags and portable heaters.
Experts say the homeless helped by Open Door are the ones with the most serious problems, including addictions, mental illness and violent tendencies.
In 2008, a Hickory homeless man was charged with murdering one of his peers in the woods behind one of the town’s shopping centers. A year before that, the remains of another homeless man were discovered in a shallow grave along the same stretch of highway.
Some of the men Cornett helps are open about the fact that they’re felons who carry guns for protection from other homeless people.
“I was kind of worried at first about it not being safe,” says Janice Cornett, his wife for the past 38 years. “You don’t know when you meet someone new if it’s a fugitive or something like that.”
There are officially 250 homeless in the Catawba County area, based on a count by the community’s housing agencies. That’s a fraction of the nearly 2,600 counted in Mecklenburg County, but what’s unusual is a higher percent of them are living outdoors and it’s increasing, Cornett says.
Currently, more than 25 percent of Catawba County’s homeless live in camps or on the streets, compared with between 10 percent and 12 percent in Mecklenburg County, experts say.
Cornett says this includes some men who have lived in the woods around Hickory for 10 or more years. They range in age from 18 to 60, and about 20 percent are women, he says. Many have spent time living in the Hickory’s shelters but were booted out for exceeding time limits and not abiding by the rules, which include staying sober and drug free.
Law enforcement officials, who know of Cornett’s efforts, describe the 10 to 15 camp sites as “lawless places” plagued by misery, theft and occasional violence.
That alone makes Cornett an angel, says Pastor Susan Smith of Hickory’s Exodus Homes, a supportive housing program.
“The camps have no rules. You can come home and find your tent gone and all your stuff,” she said. “Landowners usually look the other way ‘til someone is robbed or someone gets stabbed. Then the police show up and the camp moves.”
The campers include people like Dave Evans, who began camping last October after 13 years in prison; Sue Griffin, who lost her job in Lenoir last year; and the Sawyer twins, Stu and Steve, who moved into the woods nearly two years ago after losing their jobs and unemployment benefits.
Roger Frenceschini, 52, says it’s like living in “a patch of hell.” He’s been homeless for nearly five years, after becoming disabled.
“Yellow jackets and mosquitoes,” he says. “And rain. It rains on you sometimes, even in a tent.”
Many of them credit Cornett with keeping them sane, and a few say he’s the only reason they’re still alive.
“Roger is a hell of a guy,” says Robert Noe, 43, who recently found a job washing dishes after eight months in a camp. “Some days, I didn’t see no end to it, no light in the tunnel. On the days I felt like killing myself, he taught me that there is life at the end of that tunnel.”
Why do it?
Roger Cornett’s simple explanation for all this is: “I felt useless after I retired, and I thought there had to be more to life than sitting around with an incurable disease, feeling sorry for myself.”
His wife admits she never expected it to go this far, particularly since his disease is debilitating, afflicts him with constant pain and leads to frequent periods of fatigue.
“I don’t think anyone would have seen this coming,” she says, “but then, he did have a thing about stopping to help folks stranded on the side of the road. He’s just that type of person.”
Cornett – a father of three, grandfather of 11 and great grandfather of one – admits he treads cautiously into the camps and works hard at earning trust. “I have a calm demeanor and steady nerves, and that helps,” he says.
His says his first real conversation with a homeless guy occurred by chance in a convenience store. The two men hit it off, the guy offered to show Cornett his camp behind a nearby school, and Cornett ended up buying the guy a portable heater.
A homeless advocate was born that day.
“It really opened my eyes up to the poverty in our area,” Cornett says. “People are living in conditions that are just deplorable. ...Until you see them cooking over an open fire, deer meat, on sticks, you won’t believe it.”
Open Door, with an annual budget of $5,000, is based out of Open Door Baptist Church in Conover, which has a congregation of about 100.
Cornett and a dozen volunteers now consider themselves on call 24 hours a day for the homeless with critical needs.
Just last week, he says he learned of a defiantly independent woman in a wheelchair who is sleeping under a tarp not far from the town’s Valley Hills Mall. Cornett has been looking for her and plans on giving her a tent.
“What I have discovered is that life can be worse than any of us imagine,” he says, “and that even in a town the size of Hickory, people still live in the woods like animals.”