Written by Betty Rehberg
Maybe you have seen them along the roadways in Albany, with their bicycles or shopping carts piled high with every possession they own. Then there are the ones that have so few items that it all fits into a single back pack, you might even mistake some of those for students, until you get a look at their faces. Faces filled with despair, faces completely devoid of any hope. Perhaps you are one of the people that manage not to notice them at all, as if they are just part of the background, the invisible people.
The second week in November is National Homeless week. The homeless have always been among us, probably always will be. What is society to do about the homeless? No town wants them; they sleep in doorways, under bridges, on city benches, beg on corners, why would any town want these people around? They should just go away, but where should they go? Many of the homeless have no family willing to take them in. They often ran away from abusive situations at home, they should now return to them? If you are like most people, you probably think of homelessness as being a problem in the big cities, not in your town. However statistics taken in 2009, in a report conducted by VAAC Consulting Inc., showed that Dougherty County had approximately 412 homeless people, with 184 of those people with no shelter at all or living only in their cars.
How anyone can be certain of an accurate count is debatable. When dealing with a transient population, how can an accurate count be done? There is also the problem that some people do not realize they meet the criteria for homelessness. The federal government’s definition of homeless is as follows: An individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence or an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is an institution or supervised care, welfare hotels and/or housing for the mentally ill, etc.
Dougherty County has a few emergency beds for the homeless but most come from private charity organizations or churches, including shelters for domestic abuse. Women and children are more likely to find a safe place to sleep than single men. Many would be surprised to know that even some of the shelters charge a fee per night for a place to sleep. The Salvation Army has 42 beds available and served 33,000 meals during the last fiscal year. They will not accept a currently using substance abuser. A person can stay in the shelter free of charge for up to 14 days. According to Douglas McClure at the local Salvation Army, “After the initial 14 days, a client is eligible to start in the Short Term Emergency Program (STEP). STEP can last up to 90 days. During that program, the client pays a $5 per night program service fee” The Step program can give that homeless person the ability to have a cheap place to stay while working and saving most of their money to get back into a normal life again. The Rescue mission has another 30 beds open.
There is a Homeless Coalition in Albany that meets the last Monday of each month, but not all local homeless agencies attend the meetings. Recently groups like the Salvation Army, Mission Change and others within the Homeless Coalition here got together to develop and open “A Place 4 Hope.” A Place 4 Hope offers free laundry facilities so homeless can maintain clean clothes, help in finding jobs and has showers and restrooms for homeless to use. That and more is included in phase one, there are plans to expand and offer even more services to the homeless.
Imagine if you will the importance of being able to take a shower and wear clean clothes, to someone that has no washer and no bathroom. You may be surprised at how many of the homeless you either know or you once knew. One of my childhood friends was homeless, more than once. My friend, Linda Bruce, knows all too well what it is like to have no roof over her head. Linda was homeless back in the 1980’s. She and her boyfriend lived in a car. He had a job at a bookstore, but did not make enough to pay all of their bills. Linda was pregnant at the time; she had to stay in their car in a parking lot for hours while her boyfriend worked. Linda had lost her job because she was pregnant; the couple was soon evicted from their apartment. It was winter, and it was very cold. Once a week they had enough cash saved to get a cheap motel room. Linda explained that was the only time they could get a real shower and wash their clothes, other times they had to make do by cleaning up in fast food restaurant restrooms. They would eat at fast food restaurants when possible, not healthy food, just something to fill an empty belly. They were new to being homeless and had no knowledge of any soup kitchens or shelters. When they did not have enough money they just had to go hungry. Finally a friend realized their predicament and let them stay in her apartment on a sofa bed.
Yes many of the homeless are substance abusers of one kind or another. It is hard to know if they became substance abusers to escape the horrors of being homeless or if it was the reason they became homeless. Mission Change is holding their 4th annual Sleep Out at the Albany Mall on November 11. Hundreds of volunteers will spend the night in cardboard boxes to call awareness to the plight the homeless suffer every night. They raise funds to support many of the facilities in our area that help the people that have nothing.
There is some hope, Linda Bruce is proof of that. She is sober; she went back to school, has a job and has been reunited with her children and grandchildren. She proves that there is some hope for the homeless.