Counting the unseen

Published 8:13 pm Thursday, January 28, 2010

No matter how bad things get for most of us, we always have a home to go to, a place where we can close the door, leaving all — or at least many — of the world’s troubles behind and retreating into that space of our own.

For a distressing number of people in the area, however, even the simple refuge of four walls and a roof is beyond reach. Those people, the quiet and often unseen homeless of Suffolk and the rest of Hampton Roads, were the targets of a “point in time” homeless survey conducted Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon by the Western Tidewater Continuum of Care.

The idea was to find out just how many people in Western Tidewater exist without homes, in the margins of society. A similar count last year turned up 71 homeless individuals in the area. Various homeless shelters, jails, hospitals and church facilities put temporary roofs over the heads of 50 of those unfortunate people. The rest were found in abandoned corn cribs, dilapidated hunting shacks, makeshift lean-tos and other thrown-together “shelters” that were unable to adequately protect them from the elements.

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These people are the ones we sometimes pass on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse or other public buildings. They’re the ones we so often cross the street to avoid, look away from to pretend we can’t see and hurry past to avoid hearing.

But they are real people whose real lives — scarred by whatever misfortune of fate or genetics drove them into the streets — reflect an all-too-real fight for survival that most of us will only ever experience in our nightmares. What do they see in us as we walk past and avert our eyes?

As they searched the streets and wooded areas of Suffolk this week, representatives from the various groups that constitute the Western Tidewater Continuum of Care exemplified a compassionate spirit that we all would do well to follow. None of us may be able to solve the problem of homelessness on our own, but each of us can make a small difference in the lives of “the least of these” in each encounter we have, even if it’s just through an engaging glance and a smile.