January 8, 2018 11:24:59 AM
India Yarborough - [email protected]
Editor's Note: Maria, the subject of the story, requested her last name not be used.
Two years ago, now 32-year-old Maria was living in a car with her three kids. When her car no longer worked, she dropped it at a repair shop, where the vehicle has sat ever since. She and her kids hopped from an aunt's house to a cousin's house to a cousin's mom's house to a friend's.
Maria realizes that had family members not taken her in, she might be on the street. And after having a fourth child last year, she couldn't stand to have her little ones -- now ages 13, 10, seven and three months -- brace freezing temperatures come winter.
She was angry, stressed, broke and depressed, she said, when she couldn't find a stable living environment. She held a few service industry jobs, but nothing lasted. She had just gotten out of an abusive relationship and was close to giving up.
"We went through a lot in two years. A whole lot," Maria said. "And I have my kids. If I'm in the cold, that's fine, but not those four."
When Maria received a call from an unknown number in December, she first thought it was a telemarketer. She had been conned out of money before and was prepared to hang up.
"Something told me to change my attitude," Maria said.
On the other end of the line was Martha Kirkley, a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Columbus and vice president of the Golden Triangle Regional Homeless Coalition.
Glenda Buckhalter, director of Columbus' Community Outreach Center, had referred Maria to the coalition after Maria called Buckhalter late one night begging for help.
"At about 11 o'clock at night, I said 'Ms. Buckhalter, please find me somewhere to go. I've got to have somewhere, or I'm gonna lose my mind. I can be on the street cold, but [my kids] can't,'" Maria recalled Tuesday, as her voice cracked with emotion.
Kirkley called to offer Maria help through the homeless coalition's "supportive housing program." Through the program, Kirkley said, the coalition pays to house a participant for an average of six to nine months until that person -- or a family, in Maria's case -- is able to get back on his or her feet.
After having so many doors closed in her face, Maria would finally have a door of her own to open.
Dropping temps, remaining need
Helping the homeless, Buckhalter said, is just as important when temperatures drop, and with no homeless shelters in the Golden Triangle, non-profit organizations like the GTR Homeless Coalition and the Columbus Community Outreach Center are crucial.
High temperatures in the Golden Triangle since Christmas have been between 29 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit each day and about 40 degrees on average, according to temperatures pulled from weather.com. That 14-day average is 14 degrees cooler than the area's average high for January.
Low temperatures at night last week dropped into the teens, and Buckhalter said that kind of inclement weather can be detrimental to an individual's health when they are exposed to the elements for an extended period of time.
"They could die," Buckhalter said. "It causes so many health problems. Even if they don't [die], it could cause pneumonia, colds, the flu.
"One of the worst cases I've seen was last year," she added. "A gentleman called 911 and said he was really cold. He had no heaters and was using a Crock-Pot to try and stay warm."
According to data collected -- as mandated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development -- at a "point-in-time" in each Mississippi county in 2017, 51 people in Lowndes County and four people in Clay County were homeless. No number was reported for Oktibbeha.
Buckhalter works every day with people who don't have a permanent place to live and said those numbers are lower than the area's true homeless count.
"They only have a day to collect that data," she said. "And our definition of homeless varies."
The HUD definition of "homeless" includes individuals who lack access to a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." Homelessness is not limited to those lying on benches or under bridges at night.
"[The point-in-time count] is really not a high number because so many in the homeless population are unseen," Kirkley said.
"They're staying with friends until the friends kick them out or staying with a family member until they kick them out -- they call it couchsurfing," she added. "So the number of homeless in the area is actually much higher than that."
Lending a hand
The GTR Homeless Coalition helps clients secure jobs, set up sessions with Community Counseling Services and work toward job training and certifications at East Mississippi Community College.
"In our program, we sit down with our clients and we determine what their needs are, and then we use resources in the community to blanket those needs," Kirkley said.
Funding for the coalition comes from private donors and grants. Kirkley said the coalition was fortunate enough to receive two grants in 2017 -- a Create Foundation grant and a 4-County Foundation grant -- that helped pay a year's worth of rent in one of the coalition's three apartments.
Kirkley said all three apartments are full, and the coalition has housed about 10 families since it rented its first apartment in 2015. The organization, she added, hopes to build five of its own apartments soon.
In addition, the coalition recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will kick in April 2018 to cover the costs of rent, utilities and a part-time case manager.
The Community Outreach Center has a similar program to that of the coalition's, and Buckhalter said it costs her center around $50 a night to house a member of the community.
Buckhalter gets calls for help 24 hours a day from around 40 individuals a month. However, the outreach center's funding, which is allocated by the city, sometimes falls short, and she has reached into her own pocket on multiple occasions to cover the cost. She always welcomes private donations.
"[Placing the homeless in suitable housing] is important for their general health and welfare," Kirkley said. "When you can't control your environment, you begin to feel out of control in your life."
Back on her feet
For Maria, her kids and knowing other people have been in similar or worse situations motivated her. One day, she wants to help women like herself.
"You just can't give up," she said.
Maria and her kids have been living in the GTR Homeless Coalition-provided apartment for a week now. When she first walked into the one-bedroom residence, Maria broke down.
"I wasn't expecting all this -- towels, soap," she said.
"Usually if I'm somewhere, I'm getting up all night," she added. "[Our first night here,] we slept all night to the next morning. I didn't even want to get up, but I had to be at work."
The mother of four has secured a job at the McDonald's in East Columbus, working around 30 hours a week. Maria's agreement with the coalition requires she save at least half of each paycheck she earns, and she's been sticking to that.
The only cell phone in the house is her son's, and the only shoes she owns are the pair she wears to work. Her kids come first, she said.
Maria wants to work her way up and hopes to save the money she needs to rent her own place within three to six months. She even has big dreams of going back to school, taking business classes and opening a restaurant one day. Her son has already come up with a name: "The Land of Taste."
"This is wonderful, but I want to be able to do it on my own," Maria said. "I'm gonna get there, too. Just watch and see. All I needed was a little help."
To donate to the Columbus Community Outreach Center call Glenda Buckhalter at (662)244-3525 or visit her office at 1607 Main Street.