Helping People In Need
Homeless Outreach Gives Hope to Those Who Need it Most
By Warren Hughes Photos by Jay Browne
As Bubba Cromer and his golden retriever reach the crest of the hill at Columbia’s Finlay Park, the word resonates through a crowd of homeless nearby, "Here comes Casper and the Candyman."
Candyman is Cromer’s nickname, fondly bestowed by the homeless he serves through his park ministry. As he approaches the crowd, eager hands reach out to assist their benefactor as he lugs food, clothing and, of course, his famous candy.
As for smiles and sweets bestowed with sandwich bags and keepsake water bottles, Cromer explains, “Everybody deserves a treat and not just the basics.” Alongside him is Casper, an ivory-colored certified therapy dog, with as many fans as his master, who is also known in the community as James L. M. Cromer, prominent Columbia personal injury and criminal defense attorney and former legislator, now serving as Reading Clerk for the S.C. House of Representatives.
Arriving for his park visits Cromer also brings clothing, toiletries and, for newcomers, knapsacks filled with necessities like underwear required for a new start and a fresh appearance. Candyman Homeless Outreach, the ministry Cromer started in 2017, is now a non-profit foundation.
Recently, he implored in a Facebook posting, “If any men are cleaning out their closets. I am desperate for men’s underwear, sizes medium and large at the moment. If you buy any, leave your name and address for a receipt. Drop off on my front porch per usual.”
Initially, Cromer started serving the homeless at a downtown overnight mission in 2013. He moved to the park to reach more people who didn’t meet the other charity’s requirements. Cromer takes pride in ensuring that those his foundation embraces are served regardless of their religion, gender, sexual orientation or any other arbitrary labels.
Another urgent call on Facebook recently was for feminine toiletries and hygiene products, items often absent in homeless outreach efforts where men are the majority. Cromer is painfully mindful of that deficiency. On his first night flying solo at Finlay Park, he encountered an anxious teenage girl who needed help reading a label on a vitamin bottle. In response, Cromer’s inquiry revealed she was pregnant. That revelation promptly dispatched Cromer off to a nearby pharmacy for prenatal vitamins with a commitment to make sure she would get follow-up prenatal care.
If he wished, of course, the 55-year-old Cromer could fulfill any philanthropic impulses with a seat on a foundation or other high-profile charity board, allowing him to don a dapper suit instead of the tee shirt and running shoes he favors on his evening missions. It might strike some of his peers who don’t know him as well as a surprising choice for the former student body president, social fraternity officer, and the Chief Justice at the USC School of Law Moot Court Bar.
Yet, Cromer admits, in the words of poet Robert Frost, to his own desert places and a spiritual hunger that befell him after practicing law for a while in Los Angeles, when the big city lights of La-La Land and tinsel town left him feeling empty and unfulfilled. “I was desperately homesick and depressed. I sold everything I had and drove determinedly across country back home,” he recalls. “As they say, it was a great place to visit, but it was a soul-killing place to live.”
Subsequently, an innate desire for public service led him to seek a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives. But first, when he was back from California, Hurricane Hugo had just hit, landing him a position as a distribution official on the coast. Later, a position as staff attorney for a legislative committee provided front-seat exposure to the machinations of lobbyists and a newfound desire to represent the people himself free of those obligations.
As the only Independent in the history of the South Carolina legislature, Cromer found satisfaction in serving constituents and working on behalf of the state with his fellow legislators from 1990 to 1998. Yet, after several terms, being mindful of his initial pledge of term limits, he chose not to seek reelection and accepted the position of S.C. House Reading Clerk, a post that’s satisfying and still allows him time for his law practice and more importantly, the philanthropic calling that he finds most fulfilling.
Although confirmed in the tenets of Catholicism, Cromer laughs as he acknowledges he never was regarded as the proverbial choirboy. But friends know he is legendary for his big heart as well as for his humor. As an armchair philosopher and inveterate reader with a book always nearby, he also admits to a lifelong devotion to theology and a deeper search for meaning.
In March 2013, he found himself riveted by the exhortation from the newly chosen Pope Francis to walk humbly and show mercy in wider service to the poor and downtrodden. He might not be able to perform great deeds, Cromer reflected, but he’d always been able to draw a laugh from people, he thought to himself, and that at least was one way he could lift spirits.
Pope Francis, born in Argentina where he was once known as “The Slum Bishop,” captured Cromer’s attention with his call to reach out to the margins of society. Cromer had found his purpose. Like others in public office, he had bemoaned cuts in social services in recent decades that had shifted responsibility elsewhere and had left many suffering untreated on the streets, and as in his words, “not to mention the loss of the State Hospital to a second ballpark.”
Elaborating on his inspiration, he said, “I thought to myself, “Get off your duff and do something that makes a difference in other peoples’ lives.” Soon thereafter, Cromer showed up as a nightly volunteer at the Oliver Gospel Mission, where he served, among other roles, as a clerk registering people for their overnight stays. With characteristic good humor, he persuaded the clients to think of their cots as more than just a mattress by leaving a chocolate nightly on each pillow as though they were guests at an elegant boutique hotel.
The sweet fulfillment of that gesture earned him the affectionate appellation, “The Candyman.” That’s when Cromer decided to expand his efforts to an outdoor park mission. That’s because, he said, many of the needy don’t meet the abstinence and other requirements of overnight housing programs and “I couldn’t sign off on what I considered to be their more judgmental policies.”
Thus, Cromer did not have to think long when listing a name for his non-profit organization with the slogan, “Remember you are loved.” As founder of the Candyman Homeless Outreach, Cromer says his Shandon neighbors have stepped up with hearts and hands for the effort, donating their time, funds and energy. He is gratified that as word has spread, support has also come from the wider community and even across the state as legislators and others have made contributions.
Quoting Pope Francis, Cromer says people who don't give money to the homeless for fear it will be spent on alcohol rather than food should ask themselves what indulgences they secretly are buying for themselves.
“Just leave donations on my porch with your name and address and I will mail you a receipt,” Cromer said recently, when he sent out word that more socks, underwear, blankets, tents – or you name it – are needed. “Just got in two huge cases of water bottles that will be big hits,” he added. “Every dime you send me is directly spent on a homeless man, woman or child I’ll probably know by name.”
Receiving recent praise from a donor, Cromer exclaimed, “You are the wind beneath my wings and keep me going. It’s all a chain and without you I would fall.”
Cromer’s ministry intensifies in the autumn and winter months when the need is greatest. During the summer, he enjoys spending some time in the mountains of North Carolina, where he also works as a volunteer. Best Friend Casper doesn’t have to seriously compete for attention, but generations of black bears and raccoons have found a home on the 27 acres near Brevard and Cromer considers them members of the clan, too.
Back home in Shandon, Cromer justifiably prides himself on his ability as a chef, since he once trained as one, and frequently invites his tenants over for “family nights” where no cell phones are allowed. “Face to face conversations only,” Cromer declares. His guests regularly show their appreciation by showing up to help pack bags and donate supplies for Casper and the Candyman.