Candy Crecink keeps a box of tissues in her office at United Way of North Central Mississippi for those who arrive in desperate need with nowhere else to go.
For Crecink, director of the United Way that serves Oktibbeha, Choctaw, Webster and Winston counties, drying tears is often the first step toward meeting needs through the organizations United Way supports.
Based on her experience, Crecink knows she’s going to need more tissues today after a cold front swept through the region Monday evening, dropping temperatures by 40 degrees and plunging the chill factor into the lower teens.
“We’ve already been getting calls from people about the cold,” Crecink said. “But this kind of weather really creates a great demand. You have to have a warm place to stay. It’s that simple.”
Meanwhile, in Columbus, Sandra DePriest spent Monday’s holiday trying to arrange temporary emergency housing for the homeless who may have been caught unprepared by the early arrival of winter weather.
“I’ve been on the phone all morning,” said DePriest, director of the Homeless Coalition of the Golden Triangle. “Salvation Army has some cots we can use, so now it’s a matter of finding a place to set them up and securing the other things needed to open a temporary shelter of some sort.”
Statistically, the Golden Triangle and Mississippi do not have high homeless populations, at least not in the traditional sense. Unlike urban areas, where there is a distinct, consistent population of homeless people, many of them homeless by choice, the homeless situation here is a little harder to quantify.
“I believe there are a lot more homeless people in our area than is being reported,” Crecink said. “The difference is the homeless here aren’t camping in parks or sleeping under bridges, for the most part. They’re couch surfing with family or friends or sleeping in their cars.”
That was the situation Crecink encountered just a few weeks ago.
“This woman came in with her 15-year-old daughter and they were looking for a place to stay,” Crecink said. “She had two jobs, so it wasn’t a situation where she just wasn’t trying. But her landlord had sold the property without telling her and the new owner had her evicted. She had a place to live starting on Nov. 1, but she and her daughter had been sleeping in their car. It had gotten too cold to do that, so she came to us, looking for help.”
There are no permanent homeless shelters in the area — the closest is the Salvation Army shelter in Tupelo, but the demands there are often far more than it can accommodate, especially during extreme weather conditions.
For Crecink, helping the homeless who come to her for help means working the phones.
“There’s no one place you can call in our area,” she said. “Most of the time, it’s making phone call after phone call until you find the help you need.”
Crecink said when a person comes here needing emergency shelter, one of the first questions she asks is if that person, or perhaps a family member, is associated with a local church. Churches can sometimes provide emergency shelter for short periods.
In Columbus, both DePriest’s group and the city’s Community Services Department often provide rooms in area hotels for homeless people. Columbus police officers often refer those who they see on the streets or in parks during bad weather to the two organizations, giving them a ride to a hotel the groups have provided.
DePriest’s group is primarily focused on longer term housing and assistance. The Homeless Coalition currently has apartments available to families for short-term transitional housing and is raising funds for a multi-family facility.
Even so, the homeless coalition wants to help those who find themselves in a housing emergency.
“We don’t want anyone sleeping out of doors or in their cars in this weather,” she said. “We’ll find something for them.”
Crecink said the optimism surrounding the growth of business and industry in the greater Starkville area represents a different kind of dream for her.
“My dream is that things will be so successful that I won’t have any more women with 15-year-old children sitting in my office crying,” she said.
Until that day, Crecink makes sure to keep a good supply of tissues on her desk.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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