Homeless count is eye-opener

Published 6:38 pm Monday, February 8, 2010

Back in January, I had the opportunity to ride along during the Western Tidewater Continuum of Care Point-in-Time Homeless Persons Survey.

I partially knew what to expect, because another Suffolk News-Herald reporter has covered this annual event in the past. This was my first opportunity to go, however, and what I saw was roughly what I expected, but no less sad.

The homeless count is done every year, because it is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It helps communities understand their homeless population, and also helps determine where monetary aid to fight homelessness should flow.

I showed up at the ForKids Suffolk House homeless shelter on a Thursday afternoon to cover the count. The count had begun about 13 hours before, when teams set out late Wednesday night looking for homeless people. A count also was planned for Thursday afternoon, when I tagged along, on the assumption that some people will be more visible at night, while others will be more visible during the day.

That held true during this count. Volunteers did not find any homeless people on Wednesday night, but we found four people on Thursday afternoon.

We set out in vans from the ForKids house, and first went down the East Washington Street corridor, threading through parking lots of service stations. The police officer with us, Chris Butler, asked numerous people standing around if they knew of any homeless people in the area.

Though they all said no, we still headed toward some abandoned silos off Factory Street. In one, dirty clothes, trash, books and more were scattered on the floor where somebody had clearly been living at one time.

The idea of somebody sleeping outside saddened me as I looked at the floor of that grain silo. Though they would be protected from precipitation and some winds, the frigid temperature of the outdoors would come right in.

“I cannot imagine sleeping there, but people do it,” said Rhonda Woody, the director of the ForKids Suffolk House.

After the silo, we arrived in the woods behind a local shopping center and found an elaborately constructed shelter made of trees, plastic pallets and other items, with a sign for a bed. Butler said he believes somebody had been living there during warm weather, but moved on when the weather got colder.

Eventually, we actually found homeless people. After answering questions about how long they had been homeless, risk factors and more, each of the interviewees received a sandwich, chips, hats and toiletries.

During the course of the interviews, like reporters before me who covered the homeless count, I found myself extremely thankful that I have a roof over my head to go to each night. The homeless problem underscores just how easy it is for so many people to become homeless simply through a string of bad luck.

The experience was definitely an eye-opener. Though I certainly thanked God for my many blessings every day even before the count, I have done so with an even greater fervor since then.