But someone has been living there.
The broken windows, some fortified with weathered sheets of plywood slid into the rusted metal window frames, offered little protection from the elements. Neither did the wide-open entrances at the front and back of the building.
But a mattress piled high with papers and cardboard lay next to a dusty tent set up on the right side of the deteriorating building, signs that this was someone’s home.
The “living room” was a battered orange recliner sheltered by three discarded mattresses standing on end and topped with a piece of wood. On the other side of the building were the remains of a campfire that must have warmed the residents these cold winter nights.
That’s the sad reality for some of the at least 370 homeless people living in Calhoun and Etowah counties. In January, as the temperatures plummet, volunteers of the Homeless Coalition of Northeast Alabama will document their plight.
Tara Breiner, vice chair of the coalition, has been participating in the homeless counts for a few years and has worked with the Salvation Army for more than 15 years. During last year’s count, Breiner and others spoke directly to 370 homeless people in the two counties. They feel confident that there are some who were not counted.
Breiner is well-acquainted with the harsh living conditions of the homeless.
“Because I’ve worked with the Salvation Army in excess of 15 years, a lot of these are known to me,” she said. “I know the people. (The count is) my way of catching up with them and seeing exactly how they are doing.”
Breiner and the other volunteers will hit the streets on Jan. 27 to do a new street count of the homeless population, but numbers will be collected throughout the week at social service agencies and shelters.
The volunteers, however, are collecting more than just the number of homeless in the counties. They are asking questions such as: How did you become homeless? What services are you receiving? What services do you need? Are you employed?
The information gathered will add to a national census of the homeless, but also will be used for local agencies to apply for grants and federal HUD funding to serve the counties’ homeless better, said Jeff Nelson, Homeless Services project director for Health Services Center and a member of the coalition.
It’s part of a national effort to document the homeless in order to better serve them and possibly even prevent homelessness, Nelson said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asks that the homeless count be done the last week of January and provides the questions the volunteers will ask, so that the same data will be gathered all over the country.
“So we can collect cross-country data and have some good figures on what the homeless plight looks like across the United States,” Nelson said. “We here at Health Services Center, we have several other HUD grants so we’re obligated as an agency to do the count.”
Those grants, however, don’t pay for the homeless counts. The coalition relies on the labor of volunteers to get the project done. It has about 20 to 25 volunteers from the coalition and Jacksonville State University, but it especially needs volunteers to work in Etowah County.
“We’re getting better and better numbers from Etowah County every year, but we know there’s still – of all the people that we count, they’re around 30, 35 percent,” Nelson said. “But we know they’re just as large as us and have just as many homeless people. We just don’t have as many (volunteers).”
In 2010, the coalition did its fourth homeless count, and every year the numbers go up. In 2007, there were 276 homeless respondents, and, in 2010, there were 370. Nelson doesn’t think the actual number of homeless has gone up, but rather the coalition has just done a better job finding them. However, there are two segments of the homeless population that are growing, he said: women and families with children.
According to the past reports, in 2007, 77 of the homeless respondents, or 28 percent, were women. In 2010, that number had risen to 144 women, or 39 percent of the homeless respondents. Similarly in 2007, youth under the age of 18 made up 4 percent of the two counties’ homeless respondents. In 2010, 15 percent of the respondents were youth.
The count also surveys the homeless population on what caused them to become homeless. Usually there are multiple reasons, but in 2009, more than half, 57 percent, reported unemployment and inadequate income as contributing reasons for their plight. Another 30 percent cited substance abuse.
That’s an important part of the survey, Nelson said.
“Our goal is to try to end homelessness,” he said. “So we need to determine what services they need to keep them from being homeless. Why are they still homeless? What services are missing? What gaps are there in service that’s perpetuating their homelessness?”
To volunteer, contact Rita Flegel or Jeff Nelson at the Health Services Center at 256-835-7669.
Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.