As thousands of area residents sought safer ground from the impending storm Irma, a smaller, but more vulnerable group – the homeless – may have been asking “what about us?”
In almost every community, faces of the homeless are visible on park benches, under bridges, sleeping inside cars and in “tent” cities. Homeless advocates call them “literally” homeless.
For others, often including young children, there is another definition of homelessness: those who go from “couch to couch,” constantly moving from one motel or shelter to another, with no home of their own. Transportation is usually limited to walking.
For each of these, the uncertainty and anxiety of staying safe during a major storm is lessened by the work of such groups as the City of Hinesville’s Homeless Prevention Program, the Liberty Regional Homeless Coalition, the Red Cross and local churches.
During this past year, Hinesville’s Homeless Prevention Program (HPP) assisted 552 individuals – almost evenly split between adults and children – who are classified as “literally” homeless – those out on the street. Some of those clients, according to Kristine Bryant, assistant director of community development of the HHP, were able to evacuate Hinesville last week, seeking refuge in places like Macon and Columbus.
Bryant said at least 10 of her clients, and many others not registered with the HHP took advantage of an offer to meet last Friday afternoon at Hinesville City Hall to be transported by Liberty Transit to Shuman Recreation Center. There, busses departed for Red Cross shelters in the aforementioned inland Georgia cities.
Whether it’s in advance of a hurricane or an evening of freezing temperatures, Bryant and her staff spring into action to get the word out that shelter is available.
Because neither Liberty nor Long County provides homeless shelters, Bryant usually is limited to handing out motel vouchers, paid for by a grant and through partnerships with local motels. For Irma, the only option was to offer bussing out of town.
The hardest part is getting the word out and a realization that some may not hear the advance warning and end up still on the street during such adverse conditions.
“We go out to the food banks, the Manna House, and check with the Homeless Coalition,” Bryant said. “We go to places we know they (the homeless) are at,” she said, referring to places behind certain local businesses. “We tell them they need to evacuate.”
James McIntosh, director of the non-profit Liberty Regional Homeless Coalition, works closely with the HHP, and says the number of homeless people in the area is probably underreported.
Citing a 17.7 percent poverty rate in Liberty County, McIntosh said, “My experience in the past shows the homeless has a tendency to be undercounted,” referring to the method in which those who are homeless sometimes do not report their condition to governmental agencies, schools and the like.
“For every person counted,” McIntosh said, “there’s an extra one out there.”