The first cold blast of weather arrived Thursday, which means Glenda Buckhalter was out of the office for most of the day, trying to find homeless people in the city to secure lodging for them in area hotels.
As coordinator for the city-funded Community Outreach Center, Buckhalter is often the first line of defense for those that experience cold weather as more than an inconvenience.
This morning, the temperature dipped into the 20s, and the forecast calls for similar temperatures overnight.
“I’ve been driving around town most of the afternoon — just looking for anybody that might need help,” Buckhalter said Thursday evening. “The first cold weather always seems to catch people by surprise. That’s especially true this year with all the warm weather we’ve had until now. So I’m out trying to locate people that need a warm place to stay.”
Buckhalter is not alone in those efforts.
Other agencies that work with the poor, as well as churches and Columbus Police Department officers on patrol, are often approached by those seeking shelter.
“We also have identified a little group of churches we can call on,” Buckhalter said. “So if somebody is in need of shelter, we know we’re going to be able to find them a warm place to stay.”
Patrolmen sometimes encounter those needing shelter, which means Buckhalter is pretty much on call 24/7.
“Especially at night, our patrol officers will sometimes encounter individuals who need shelter,” said CPD Community Relations Officer Rhonda Sanders. “When that happens, we call Glenda, and she finds a place for them.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducts a “point in time” survey of homelessness throughout the nation each January. While the homeless population in the Golden Triangle is comparatively low, cold weather can be life-threatening for those who do find themselves without shelter.
In 2015, the survey found 36 homeless people in Lowndes County, 13 in Clay County, three in Oktibbeha County and none in Noxubee County.
Such encounters are less common in Starkville, which has no designated agency to address homelessness during extreme weather.
“In talking with (Starkville Police Department) Chief Nichols, he said the situation doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen,” Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said. “In those cases, we reach out to groups like Helping Hands Ministry, and they’ve always been very responsive. Churches, too, are ready to step in and provide help. We don’t really have a formal program or policy. It’s more along the lines of taking care of these situations when they emerge.”
Both cities are also mindful of those who may have shelter but lack sufficient heat sources in their homes. Utility companies delay service interruptions during severe cold weather, for example.
Buckhalter said she stands ready to help those people, too.
“Look out for your neighbor,” Buckhalter said. “Some people may not have proper heating in their homes. They may have had their electricity turned off, and that can be dangerous. We always see a higher risk of fires during cold weather because people are forced to rely on unsafe heating sources.
“If you learn that your neighbor needs help, help them,” she added. “And if you can’t help them, call us. That’s what we’re here for.”
Those needing assistance can call Buckhalter at 662-244-3525.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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