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While they live among us, they often go unnoticed. But last week, Wilson officials and volunteers hit the streets as a part of a nationwide effort to count the homeless over a 24-hour-period.
“They are very transient — living in cars, or moving from one abandoned building or hidden corner to another,” said the Rev. Linda Walling, Hope Station’s executive director.
The count is called Point-in-Time, where communities across the country tally and document those experiencing homelessness. But it only provides a snapshot of the problem that occurs each day.
The national count initiative only reflects those identified in shelters or “street” homeless during a 24-hour-period once a year. Last year’s Point-in-Time Count showed 59 homeless people living in Wilson. That number only represents those who truly have nowhere else to go and doesn’t include those who are couch-surfing with friends and family members or living in hotels. It also doesn’t reflect Wilson County schoolchildren who considered homeless by the federal government.
Walling, who was among those counting the street homeless last week, said there are many more homeless people in Wilson County who have yet to be identified during this annual event.
“Persons who are homeless come into Hope Station every week seeking shelter, but finding them for this count is challenging,” she said. “Those on the counting team just have to share their knowledge about where folks might be and go looking. We have mixed emotions when we find them — from sadness at their condition to gratitude that we can offer services at that moment.”
Wilson police escorted volunteers as they headed out into the night searching for those who live in the shadows. They checked abandoned buildings, searched under railway trestles and walked through wooded areas behind shopping center for signs of people camping out.
The united effort continued into the morning as a separate group of volunteers checked area restaurants where the homeless tend to hang out and the Community Soup Kitchen, officials said.
Wilson Police Sgts. Russell Winstead and Matt London knocked on the door of a wooden shed stationed behind an abandoned building.
Officials said a couple emerged. They were sleeping in the dark, trying to stay warm. Officials said Hope Station was able to provide the couple with a hotel room for the night and give them food from the agency’s pantry. Volunteers also provided care packages to the homeless they encountered thanks to the Wesley Shelter.
While there are a number of resources available to the homeless, the decision on whether to use them is ultimately up to each person, officials said.
“Our local housing committee brings together community partners who serve many of the needs that may face those living on the street,” said Lori Walston, Wilson County Department of Social Services communications manager. “By coming out as a team and through working together, our goal is to successfully address the needs of those we find.”
The conditions in which volunteers found the homeless living was an eye-opener for Hope Station intern Judith Melly. One of those moments included finding someone living at the bottom of stairs at a public building.
“It is sad that there are people out there who sleep in the streets in the winter,” said Melly, who is a Barton College senior majoring in social work. “Witnessing them made me feel pity and anger at the same time because as a society we need to show support and help them get a nice, safe and warm place to sleep.”
The local count is coordinated by the Wilson-Greene Housing Committee, which is part of the Neuse Regional Housing Committee and is made up of community organizations committed to trying to end homelessness in the Wilson area. In addition to Hope Station and the Wilson County DSS, other agencies involved in the count include the Wilson Housing Authority, Wesley Shelter, Wilson County Schools and the Wilson County United Way.
After participating in this count for her sixth year, Walling said she understands that ending homelessness will be difficult, but is worth the effort.
“With these numbers, I hope that the commitment to ending homelessness will grow beyond the very dedicated members of the housing committee,” Walling said. “Lifting persons out of homelessness offers dignity and hope to those who are served, demonstrates the heart of our community and ultimately frees up resources for other needs.”