Feet on the ground: Volunteers ready to count community’s homeless on Jan. 24
By Melanie Tucker | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Where do Blount County’s homeless men, women and children lay their heads at night or spend these cold winter days?
That’s a question a group of volunteers hopes to answer on Jan. 24 during the annual Point-in-Time Count, a day in which communities across the country are putting a number on their homeless population in order to receive government funds to help solve the problem.
Blount County agencies like United Way, Family Promise, Haven House and Child and Family Tennessee, along with students from Maryville College and concerned residents, met Thursday morning to finalize strategies. Folks like Wendy Wand of United Way and Kathi Parkins of Family Promise talked about the successes of last year’s efforts and the branching out taking place this year.
Teams of volunteers will be visiting laundromats, parking garages, campgrounds, 24-hour restaurants, abandoned buildings, parking lots, food pantries and walking the greenway system to get an accurate picture and count of our homeless. Some will be out as early as 4:30 a.m. while others have taken the late-evening shift.
This band of volunteers includes 22 students in a January Term class called Action to Advocacy at Maryville College, taught by Preston Fields. There were many of them present at the Thursday meeting, including friends Ashley Ferris, Caitlyn Myers and Brittani Edge, all sophomores.
These three have chosen to walk the lengthy system of trails along the county’s greenway system next Thursday. There have been recent reports of people sleeping outside in these areas.
Ferris said when she signed up for this class, she didn’t know she would be involved in such a hands-on project. She and her two friends expressed no reservations, however, when it comes to doing their part.
“I had no idea,” was the response Myers gave when she learned of the homeless numbers from last year. Being students at Maryville College kind of insulates you from those realities, she said.
The number of homeless in Blount County was 390 when the 2012 Point-in-Time Count was conducted last January. That included 81 who were living in their cars or outside in parks or in places not meant for human habitation. There were 69 housed in shelters like Haven House and Heaven Sent Home; and 240 who were living on the couches of friends and family, teetering on the edge of homelessness.
Edge said she and her friends are ready to help get an accurate count for 2013. “You don’t get this kind of experience in other classes,” she said.
Wand said this group of community volunteers has done the necessary groundwork. “A lot of our volunteers this year did this last year,” she said. “We have (Fields) who has organized his students. We know where we are going this year.”
She said the Townsend area is one that will be targeted, thanks to some committed volunteers who know where to go to locate the area’s homeless population.
Each of these volunteers will be equipped with surveys to fill out as they encounter the homeless. No names or dates of birth are asked for. The Point-in-Time Count is just that, a count. Information such as age, gender, where the person or family slept last night and whether he or she is a veteran are what’s needed in the count.
The volunteers will also have bags of personal hygiene products to hand out and some mats made by Donna Bowman and volunteers at her church and residents of Broadway Towers. The mats are made from grocery bags.
Kimberly Naujock-Hargrove will be volunteering for this important count for the first time. A Blount County resident who serves on the board of a nonprofit in Knoxville, she said the issue of homelessness and affordable housing has been a passion of hers since her college days at the University of Tennessee. She has volunteered to go out to the parks and boat launches on Thursday.
That means she will be out and about in the wee hours. Naujock-Hargrove doesn’t mind.
“I wanted to have my feet on the ground and be able to interact,” she said. “The homeless have been so invisible. Some want to talk and share their story. And while I understand the reason for this survey — it’s grant-based to try and bring in more dollars — there is also this opportunity to be a friendly, loving presence in the process.”