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Counting the homeless

By BY SONNY LONG - SLONG@VICAD.COM
Jan. 28, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Updated Jan. 28, 2010 at 7:29 p.m.

Barbara Haley, with VISD's Kids Connection, interviews a family at Regency Inn of Victoria.

A small tear-drop tattoo adorns Charles Jenkins' cheek near his left eye. But the 60-year-old homeless man isn't crying about his plight.

"I've been looking for work for more than a year," said Jenkins, who was released from state jail in San Antonio in January 2009.

He got a bus ticket to Rockport, where a friend put him up for a short time.

"I was planning on doing some oyster work, but there just wasn't any," he said.

Jenkins, who grew up in Corpus Christi, said he has hitchhiked back and forth between Houston and Dallas looking for work and even went as far as Little Rock, Ark., Nashville, Tenn., and Atlanta, Ga.

"I've worked in the oil field all my life. I just can't find any work. Anywhere. Of any kind," said Jenkins, who has also worked on a shrimp boat, done roofing and dry wall and welding.

Jenkins said he has a sleeping bag and a backpack with a few belongings and clothes. He has been sleeping in an aluminum out building for about a month.

"I sleep wherever I can, any place that's out of the wind and rain." he said. He is no longer close to his grown children on the East coast.

Jenkins' story is not unusual. In 2009, more than 200 homeless people were identified in Victoria and Calhoun counties, a number expected to be exceeded this year.

On Thursday members of the Victoria Area Homeless Coalition, KIDZ Connection and about 100 volunteers took to the streets to count the homeless.

The Homeless Coalition, which has conducted five homeless counts since 2004, is made up of representatives from about three dozen area agencies that provide social services to those in need.

Many of the volunteers for the 2010 count came from Northside Baptist Church and Parkway Baptist Church.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development uses the count numbers to help determine future grant funding for area agencies that provide assistance to the homeless.

Counts were also held in Calhoun County, Cuero, Gonzales, Edna, Austwell-Tivoli, Hallettsville and Goliad.

Count workers in Victoria actually began Wednesday night, hitting a couple of locations known to provide shelter for the homeless. About 5 a.m. Thursday, coalition members made contact with about a dozen homeless men at Labor Ready looking for work.

Volunteers also spread out to local libraries as well as motels along the Houston Highway. Known and rumored homeless encampments were also checked.

Residents at the El Torreón Apartments, who have been without water for about five days, were also approached about their plans for relocating if it becomes necessary.

The count included a required survey that volunteers fill out with the personent, as well as coats, blankets, and a voucher for a night's motel stay in some cases.

Goodie bags of fruit, snacks, soap and shampoo were handed out as well as boxes of food, including canned meat and other non-perishable food items. Northside Baptist Church provided the food boxes.

"We're trying to cast a very large net and capture everyone," said Ginny Stafford, chief executive officer of Mid-Coast Family Services, another coalition member. "This problem is bigger than Mid-Coast, or Perpetual Help Home, or the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army, or any one agency. It's going to take a community effort with not only these agencies, but also businesses, government and the schools."

"The beauty of the coalition is we have such a diversity," Stafford said. "We all have a different perspective on homelessness, but when we get together there are basic issues of affordable, adequate, safe housing."

Keith Rucker, a case worker for Crossroads Youth and Family Services, helps coordinate the volunteer effort. He agreed that the homeless problem will take a wide-sweeping effort.

"This affects the whole community," Rucker said. "When we have people out there who don't have a place to live. It's important we come together to get those people off the streets and into a home."

Jeff Williams, president of Family Promise of Victoria who has been involved with the last three counts, said that the joint effort is vital.

"It's such a big problem, no one agency can handle it. It has to be an effort of all agencies working in conjunction. That's what the coalition does very well is bring people together in a group that works toward the same end result," he said.

Rucker also emphasized how important the homeless count is.

"We don't want to miss anyone," he said. "A lot of homeless families out there need our help. Doing the count brings in additional funding to help that population. It's very important to get a good count."

Jim Welvaert, president of the coalition who heads up the homeless program at Mid-Coast Family Services, told coalition members Thursday, "One thing we all need to be aware of is how many people are hanging on by their fingers, trying to make it. It's a big problem. It's really tough right now."

For Jenkins, things weren't as tough Thursday night. He qualified for a voucher for a free overnight motel stay.

"I'm shocked. I guess Victoria's all right. I keep coming back here," he said. "This is a blessing."

At least for one night.

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