Volunteer effort shelters Macon homeless

Volunteers left their warm beds behind to make sure people living on the streets could find warmth early Wednesday.

The Daybreak center for the homeless provided a warming station overnight after permanent shelters quickly filled.

“When they need us, we’ll be available to take the overflow from the Salvation Army,” said Sister Elizabeth Greim, executive director of Daybreak. “This was a pilot to see how this relationship would work.”

With temperatures dropping toward the teens, crews combed downtown Macon to rescue folks from the hard freeze.

“We drove around looking for some of our people last night, and I’m telling you, the streets were empty,” said Sister Catherine Brown, who helps run Daybreak’s medical clinic. “People were off the streets.”

However, they coaxed a woman to come out from under the trestle near Gateway Park and persuaded another man to come in from the cold.

As temperatures started skidding downward Tuesday afternoon, folks at Daybreak were warned to register early for rooms at the Salvation Army shelter.

“By about 3 p.m. (Tuesday), both the Rescue Mission and Salvation Army were at full capacity,” said Don Druitt, Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management director. “If one person gets turned away, that’s a lot.”

Those additional people seeking shelter overnight registered at Salvation Army before being taken to the warming station, which was manned by Red Cross volunteers.

“It’s really a community effort,” said Donna Lee, disaster program manager for the local chapter of the Red Cross. “We’re just using resources that we have already. This is all about collaborative, donated dollars funded through United Way to meet the needs.”

Bibb County Sheriff David Davis provided about 30 brown-bag meals for those seeking shelter, Druitt said.

Representatives from the Division of Family and Children Services also assisted with the effort.

As Wednesday morning’s sun began to melt the frost outside, about 50 Daybreak regulars helped themselves to hot coffee and oatmeal.

The center opened its doors at 6:30 a.m., an hour earlier than normal.

People bundled in heavy coats sipped coffee as they relaxed in chairs, or they waited for a hot shower or clinic appointment.

“No one was turned away that asked for help last night,” Brown said. “I’m sure there’s others who probably needed assistance. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they didn’t come forward.”

Only a handful of people found warmth at Daybreak overnight, but there was little notice as agencies had scrambled only hours before to make it happen.

Druitt praised the efforts of the community to step in and take care of those with nowhere to turn.

He said the city needs 20 percent more shelter beds going forward. Currently there are about 135 slots available, he said.

The absence of a disaster declaration or state of emergency impedes some of the shelter resources available, so plans need to be in place so people can be aware of and locate the volunteer efforts in cases of extreme cold.

“How does the message get out to a population not necessarily carrying cellphones or watching television?” he asked. “We have to get the message out there.”

Agencies scrambled Tuesday to arrange the temporary warming station, but the partners look forward to having a more permanent plan.

Individual churches have stepped forward in the past, but the location must be logistically close to the need, which is downtown.

Sporadic shelters can complicate matters.

If a volunteer shelter opens the first night and does not have anyone, they are likely to be closed the next night when people actually show up once word circulates on the streets.

The collaborative effort will be looking for ways to improve response and services as winter approaches.

“If we’re feeling the effects of climate change, we need to be prepared for more cold,” Greim said.

Red Cross volunteer Joseph Hubbard, of Warner Robins, was one of those who stayed up all night at Daybreak.

“It was a great opportunity to let these people get out of the cold, and it makes you really appreciate what you have,” Hubbard said.