HAVEN attempts headcount of local homeless

Feb. 01, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Pulling up to strangers on the side of the road, scrambling up thorny inclines, poking around an abandoned building and dealing with shoes soaked in unavoidable ditches, one intrepid HAVEN worker spent Thursday afternoon counting Lee County’s unsheltered homeless population.

HAVEN was joining homeless coalitions around the state in completing a local count of individuals and families experiencing homelessness — with staff and volunteers tallying people in shelters for the night, as well as those residing on the streets, in campgrounds, under bridges, in abandoned buildings or in similar places.

In just more than an hour in and around downtown Sanford, Rosa Portillo and a reporter from The Herald found five people who said they were homeless, and about a dozen who said they were either staying with friends or family or were a week or two away from losing their own place. For their privacy, The Herald agreed to only give the first names of people interviewed.

Willie, a 34-year-old from Moore County, said he became homeless a few weeks ago and came to Lee County because he heard about the shelter at Christian Faith Ministries, saying that he didn’t know of any shelters run by the government, churches or nonprofits in Moore County.

“They just have halfway houses, and you’ve got to be on drugs or alcohol to get in there,” he said. “The closest shelters were in Lee County or Cumberland County.”

Thursday wasn’t necessarily cold, but the wind and temperatures in the 50s did give the air a bit of a chill. To escape these conditions, Willie was sitting in the foyer of the Lee County Library with Donnie and another man who didn’t want to be interviewed but did speak with Portillo at length in Spanish.

Donnie, 43, said he was born and raised in Lee County and has been homeless by choice for almost three weeks now.

“I wanted to get away from a situation at my mom’s house and some things going on that I wasn’t comfortable being around,” he said.

Several people mentioned an abandoned building on Chatham Street, but the only people found there Thursday were two code inspectors who warned that the floor was caving in and the place as a whole was incredibly dangerous. And deeper inside the massive building, they said, where visibility approaches only a few inches, nasty surprises might await.

The count at that building ended quickly and unsuccessfully.

At a convenience store on Charlotte Avenue, one man named Ray said he’s about three weeks away from becoming homeless and can’t get a job because of a felony charge. Portillo told him about a Certificate of Relief, which is a court-issued document for people with misdemeanors and low-level felonies that can give them an easier time finding a job or a place to live.

“Thank you for doing this,” Ray said, telling Portillo that the community needs to know more about the struggles homeless and nearly homeless people face.

While driving around later, Portillo told a story of a local preacher who asked his congregation to raise their hands if they hated their jobs. Then he asked people to raise their hands if they didn’t have a job, chastising those who were in the first group.

“There are so many people here who don’t have a job or a place to live, but they want to work,” she said. “But because of their background, or the economy, there’s nothing for them.”

Kenosha Davenport, executive director for HAVEN, said this headcount — which will help the county apply for federal grants and also simply provide a better picture of what the local situation is like — has already logged  35 people in three shelters, plus the people on the street. Seven more shelters are participating but have yet to turn in their numbers, she said, meaning that this year’s count should eclipse last year’s count of 36 by a long shot.

“This year we’re doing a more accurate count because we have more homeless providers than in the past, and we’re all more organized,” she said. “... We’re definitely planning to do this bigger and better next year.”