A little more than a month has passed since the shocking murder of a homeless man in Swedesboro rattled the quiet normalcy of this peaceful town. In that month the expected questions grew in tenor from surprise to worry: How could this happen here? Are there homeless in my neighborhood? Who would have done such a thing? Is my family in danger?
The Woolwich Police investigation will answer these questions but the underlying concern for the people in Swedesboro who knew and now grieve for the victim is how to prevent such tragedy from ever happening again.
And that is a larger question entirely.
Sylvester Combs, 60, who grew up in Mullica Hill and made a name for himself on the football field at Clearview Regional (Class of 1974), moved his parents to Swedesboro in the early 1980s, sometime after he graduated from Lyons Technical Institute.
“He liked Swedesboro,” said Carl Rainear, pantry manager at Kings Things Thrift store in Swedesboro, where Combs helped out. “He hung around with local fellas here.”
But at some point, perhaps after his parents died, Combs stepped off into the sidelines of life.
One thing is known, however: Whatever demons Sylvester Combs carried with him, he shared largely pleasantries, helpfulness, and good will with the people of Swedesboro he saw every day. Known as “Buttons” for his childhood fascination with his grandmother’s collection, Combs seemed universally well-liked.
“He came in here frequently,” said a clerk at the Heritage Store on Auburn Avenue, one of many who expressed shock that such a friendly man was attacked. Combs passed the store every time he walked to the abandoned trailer at Second and Grant that he called home.
“Everyone in this town knew him as a great guy,” another clerk reminisced. “No one was afraid of him. He was quiet and friendly and we liked him.”
Friendly, quiet and, lately, somewhat frail, according to those who saw him frequently, Combs was viciously attacked at that trailer on April 6. He died from repeated blows to the head, said the police.
The horrific murder coalesced the people of Swedesboro, who came together to help fund his funeral, to hold a vigil and a memorial service for the gentle man they saw daily, offering a smile and help as needed.
Tom Fromm, Mayor of Swedesboro, posted a condolence statement on the town website, noting the mourning the borough felt. Fromm said he had more than once sought help for Combs from various agencies designed to aid the homeless, but Combs was not interested.
Combs was a particular friend of Joe Denny’s, treasurer at Kings Things. “I considered him a friend, in the (approximately) three or four years I knew him and I really believe he thought of me as his friend.”
It was Denny who realized Combs had not been around in a few days and called the police to check on him. “He would help us load or unload goods. He did odd jobs around town for a few dollars, but he helped us on a volunteer level. I was definitely worried when I didn’t see him for a few days. It was out of his routine.”
The staff at Kings Things tried for years to help Combs out of homelessness. A Christian thrift store at 1404 Kings Highway, (http://kingsthings.weebly.com (856) 467-1796), Kings Things seeks to offer aid to families before a financial crisis becomes worse, becomes homelessness.
“But Buttons was always independent,” Denny said. “He had family in the area and did not accept their help.”
Denny and Rainear said Kings Things often provided food and sometimes shelter in cold weather for Combs, and put him in touch with county and state agencies that could help him recover normalcy. “But he liked his independence,” Denny said. “He did not wish to go to homeless shelters, or programs.”
Kings Things did not give up on Combs, but, true to its mission, helped him as much as he would allow. The store, founded in 1983 by five Swedesboro churches, St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church (New St. Clare of Assisi Parish), Trinity Old Swedes Episcopal Church, First Baptist Church of Swedesboro, Bethesda United Methodist Church, and First Presbyterian Church of Swedesboro, is a 501 C3 not for profit organization.
Its operation includes a food pantry, a community outreach, a Thanksgiving voucher program that feeds about 200 local families and a Christmas giving program for area families in need. Funds for these programs come from the thrift store, the furniture store and donations.
“When people ask me what I need,” explained Gerry Siglow, President of the Board of Kings Things, “I tell them I need your time, your talent, and your treasure. We are operated strictly by volunteers and rely on donations of clothing, household goods, furniture and money.”
Siglow said folks in Swedesboro and surroundings often don’t know what’s happening to their neighbors. “The need for what we do is greater than you could imagine. There are several people, families on the verge of homelessness, right in our area. We work with families, put them in touch with people who can help, show them what can be done, what their rights are. We pay bills to get the electricity back on if that will help someone keep a job (and with an understanding about repayments.)
“And we do a pretty good job in assuring no one goes hungry. We had a family, a single mom with four kids, a teacher who suffered several injuries and the emotional fallout from them. You get bogged down,” Siglow explained. “You’re trying to work, to keep things together, then you find your home in danger from not paying on debt or taxes.
“We got her a loan, had an accountant work on her taxes and she is now paying back bills,” Siglow said.
“We helped another mother on the verge of crisis leading to homelessness. Did you know that if you have children but no electricity at the house that DYFS (Department of Youth and Family Services) can come in and take your children? The ex-husband ratted her out to DYFS but I met them at the door with proof we had paid the bill. People really don‘t know what‘s going on behind someone else‘s door.”
Fromm also urged his constituents to support the work of Kings Things and of places like People for People in Glassboro (856 579-7561) http://www.pfpfoundation.org as a move to help prevent the many crises that can leave a family in unexpected need.
The demons that plagued the man affectionately called Buttons kept him apart, alone in later years until someone with more deadly demons took his life.
But Sylvester Combs left this life a legacy sought by many. He was well-known to his neighbors and well-liked by them. He made his small circle of earth a better place for having traveled it.
Kings Things and helping charities like them, can use your time, talent or treasure to do the same.