In the darkness behind Home Depot on Monday night, Belinda Russell walked along shining a flashlight into a brushy area strewn with litter.
“Hello, is anyone out here?” she called out, as several other people walked along with her. “We have blankets, food and water. We are here to help you.”
Russell and her team were taking part in a count of the homeless in Houston County over the course of three hours. The effort included about 150 volunteers in 21 teams, each assigned to searching different areas of the county. They spread out to locate the homeless in what amounted to a census. When homeless people were found, if they were willing, volunteers asked them a list of questions, which included how they became homeless and where they stayed at night.
They also gave each a “blessing bag” of items to help them out.
It was a nationwide effort all done on the same night. Volunteers in Bibb County also did a homeless count Monday, but it was the first time Houston County has participated, Russell said.
Russell’s team didn’t find any homeless behind Home Depot, but they did find five in the area between Lowe’s and Wal-Mart. All agreed to the questionnaire.
One of those was Angela Baughman, who said she became homeless as a result of a car accident and ensuing medical bills. She was appreciative of the effort the volunteers were making.
“It might help us,” she said. “It might help all of the homeless, really.”
Asked what she would like people to know about the homeless she said, “You can’t judge. You don’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes. It could happen to you.”
She said she sleeps in a tent in a nearby wooded area. She gets annoyed by people who come to the area panhandling who aren’t actually homeless.
“They will jump in a car and take off,” she said.
Another young lady they found standing outside of the Budget Inn said she was living there but expected to be out of money soon and had no place to go. Russell said she was considered “at risk” to be homeless and therefore would count in the total. So Russell’s team found a total of six homeless.
Russell believes in Baughman’s statement that it can happen to anyone. When Russell was 19, her mother died and Russell ended up living in her car for two months. She said it’s what inspired her to get involved in the homeless count.
‘It was heartbreaking’
An overall count for the night was not available Tuesday, but before the count began Russell estimated they would find 75 to 100. She also acknowledged that the count would likely not locate all of the homeless in the county. They visited places that were suggested to them by law enforcement as locations where the homeless were likely to be found, as well as searching along roadways and other random spots.
Briana Hart, one of the volunteers on Russell’s team, said the count was an eye-opening experience for her.
“It was heartbreaking to see so many people in need,” she said. “It makes you more appreciative of the little things in life.”
Several off-duty law enforcement officers volunteered for the effort. They wore plain clothes and remained near the searchers in unmarked cars so as not to frighten the homeless.
A training session was held recently and Russell was surprised when so many people showed up to volunteer. She said most of them worked at Robins Air Force Base, including military members and civilians.
Among those were Dirk Hamilton, Scott Ward and Opie Hurst. They are all former military working as civilians at Robins, and said their main interest was the locate any homeless veterans. The volunteers had a contact with the Veterans Administration that would provide immediate help to any veteran found during the search.
“We are looking out for our own,” Hurst said. “It’s important.”
Their searched along Ga. 96 and did not find any homeless, although though found some signs where homeless had been staying, Ward said.
Kenitra Burnette was on a team made up of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority members.
“We are going to be working really hard to get these people the help that they need,” she said before the search began. “Get them food, get them housing, get them off the streets and hopefully on their way to a better life.”
The search was organized by the Houston County Human Needs Coalition, an organization of churches, charitable organizations and businesses that work to help those in need in the county. Russell chairs the coalition.
Russell said Monday’s survey will help the county apply for grants and other assistance to address the homeless problem.
“We definitely have a homeless problem in Houston County and we are going to prove it,” she said.
Naomi Ladson, chairwoman of the Macon Coalition to End Homelessness, said volunteers there are working on the count all week. She said they have been doing it for many years and previously have done it in one night, but this year they are taking more time.
As a result, she expects they may locate more homeless people. They counted about 300 last year and she expects it could go significantly higher this year. She said she ordered 500 questionnaires.