Belinda Russell is a volunteer with Houston County Human Needs Coalition, a group that works to help the homeless, among other things.
Residence: Warner Robins
Q: What is the Houston County Human Needs Coalition?
A: A group that formed about three years ago to see how we could make Houston County a better place by identifying needs and working collaboratively to meet needs — or a need — we determined wasn’t being addressed as it should.
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Q: What did you determine?
A: After an in depth look we realized Houston County is in dire need of immediate emergency shelter. There are a few programs, good ones, that help homeless people and families longer term, but not what I’d call a shelter.
Q: You mean overnight-type shelter versus longer aid programs?
A: Yes. And some might even say there’s not a homelessness problem in Houston County but there is. In fact, when we approached the state about funds and help they told us there weren’t homeless people here. We disagreed and they said we needed to do a point in time homeless survey to show otherwise.
Q: And you did?
A: Yes. In January of 2017 we did a count and identified 44 specific people living homeless. But the state asked for a second survey which we just did last month. The state gives a specific date for the count. I don’t know why but it’s been in January both times.
Q: So did you get a different, better count?
A: A more accurate count I’m sure, but I don’t have it. It was done through a phone app with a series of 10 questions with the results going straight to the state. We haven’t heard numbers back yet and I’m not sure when we will.
Q: How did methods differ for this count?
A: First, we used the app and were at four strategic locations in Houston County. Last year, we went out and found as many homeless people on the streets, behind stores and other places as we could. This year, we made it known we’d be at the four locations with gift bags. We gave food, hygiene items, blankets and jackets to individuals. We also went to soup kitchens, food pantries and other spots to find people who did the survey. It asked where they spent the night that particular January date and determined if they were homeless, had infrequent housing and a few related bits of information.
Q: Did the previous results not qualify Houston County?
A: It wasn’t that 44 wasn’t enough, the state just asked for another survey. Of course we hope the end result will make funds available to help. We hope once we’ve done the groundwork a group or agency will step up.
Q: Step up and create an overnight emergency shelter?
A: Meet the need, and we’re talking about free, emergency shelter. But there are other solutions that state and federal grants can fund that don’t require a building, like 30-day hotel vouchers, housing vouchers and things like that that don’t require brick and mortar.
Q: What’s your experience with people living homeless? What motivated your involvement?
A: One thing is this: a while back I was driving down Carl Vinson and saw a van left on the side of the road and a tall, clean-cut gentleman rolling a suitcase behind him and carrying another bag over his shoulder. I just thought to myself, “This is day one. This is day one.” There was nothing I could do. If I picked him up there was nowhere I could take him. I was at a red light and he walked further down the road and put his suitcase down, sat down, and put his head in his hands. I just thought, “This is day one. Where is he going to go.” Maybe if had gotten off the street he could have been kept from homelessness, but there was no way to do that here. Twenty days later where is he? Is he trapped in homelessness? One thing we determined is the vast number of people living homeless in Houston County are able-bodied, willing-to-work people who had something happen and just need someone to help them back on their feet. An overnight shelter could really help.
Q: Who started the coalition?
A: Initially, people from the Veterans Administration, All Saints Episcopal Church and the Department of Labor sent out invitations to groups, agencies businesses, churches and others to come together. And Flint Energies. Flint was involved right near the start. I work for Flint.
Q: There are more than 60 coalition partner organizations. Can you give just a small sampling of some of your active, regularly involved partners?
A: There are many of us, but I think of Flint, the Georgia Department of Labor, Houston County Board of Education, the VECTR center, Houston County Family Connections, Houston Healthcare, Family Promise — those are a few that come to mind.
Q: Who can be part?
A: Anybody who’s concerned and wants to help. Meetings are noon to 1 p.m. the third Thursday each month at the EduCare center at Houston Healthcare Pavilion on the corner of Watson Boulevard and North Houston Road. It’s the old Houston Mall. Come in through the E3 entrance and walk straight to community education.
Q: Who’s a good contact for you?
A: Mandy Stone at the VECTR center at 478- 218-3900 is a good contact. Our website is houstoncountyhnc.org.
Q: Are there other projects, other needs you’re addressing?
A: Homelessness is what we identified and it’s our focus. As a coalition we try to help each other out and support one another if there’s a cause or event, but as a group we focus on homelessness.
Answers may have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.