Daybreak's Sleepout raises $60,000 for Macon's homeless

A group huddled around the fire as Rabbi Aaron Rubinstein played accordion.

Mercer law school professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore sang, and the chorus of Gillian Welch's "Look at Miss Ohio" carried in the wind like embers.

They were among participants in the Daybreak Center's third annual Greater Macon Sleepout in Central City Park, which ended early Friday morning.

But Middle Georgia State University professor Liz Riley sat away from the larger crowd.

The event -- aimed at raising money for and awareness of the plight of the homeless -- had a personal element for Riley. Her older brother, Bill, died homeless six years ago.

Riley said her brother lived in Pensacola, Florida, and worked for a landscaping company. But addiction forced the West Georgia University graduate to live in a tent by a river in that Florida Panhandle town.

He died not long after that. He lived on the streets for maybe two months, Riley said. The person who ran the homeless shelter in Pensacola called their mother the day after his death to deliver the news.

When event organizer and neighbor Jeff Battcher began promoting the event on Facebook, Riley committed.

"(Bill) was a strong reason. He put a name and a face to it," Riley said of homelessness. "But I've always felt helping the homeless was important."

The event was meaningful to 59 other attendees as well: a count that was nearly double last year's turnout, said Gaye Martel, Daybreak's volunteer coordinator.

The event raised about $60,000, Battcher said.

The money came from sponsors and the sleepers' own pockets. Battcher said more money is still coming in from big donors. He estimates the final tally will be close to $65,000.

"I had a friend tell me 'Hey, I'm not on Facebook. Can I mail you a check?'" he said.

The funds raised will go directly to Daybreak, which provides the homeless with a safe place to rest as well as coffee, laundry services, education and health treatment, among other services.

The benefit of that money isn't lost on those who come to Daybreak for help.

Before going to the park, Graham Knight spoke to the participants at dinner.

Knight, who moved to Georgia to be closer to his wife's family in Covington, was in and out of the hospital. He eventually found himself out of heart medication that he needs -- and homeless.

The nurses in Daybreak's clinic began to work with Knight to find solutions. Knight got his medication for little to no cost and found three doctors -- one general practitioner and two heart specialists -- who see him despite the fact that Knight has no insurance.

"Without Daybreak, ... I may not well be around at this moment," Knight said. "With help, we can make this a temporary position and (help others) move upwards."

The event's benefit also isn't lost on those who work at the center.

Sister Judy Flowers, a recent transplant to the city and a volunteer nurse in Daybreak's clinic, said she understands how support from the residents of Macon drives Daybreak.

The center doesn't get government support, Flowers said. It must rely on the "good people of Macon."

The participants receive a benefit as well.

Interacting with some of the homeless, hearing some of them share their stories and sleeping out in solidarity makes people more empathetic, Flowers said.

"It changes people," she said. "It touches you in places you wouldn't be touched if they didn't have those interactions."

Riley woke up the morning after sleeping in the park and came into the Daybreak Center for breakfast a little later than most of the other participants. She said she had slept just three hours because of noise near the park, especially the trains that run nearby.

But she, like the other sleepers, had a breakfast that included cheese grits with the homeless who come to Daybreak each day. They sat around the tables chatting, laughing and trying to warm up.

"Everyone is one bad decision away from being homeless," Riley said.

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