It's been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I want to tell you about a picture worth a thousand lives. It is a snapshot of the lives of 1,006 people in the Midlands on the night of Jan. 29, 2009.
The security light of a street lamp reveals a woman in her 60s curled up on the porch in front of a church downtown. The light makes her feel safe, she says as her breath floats visibly in the 35-degree air. An outreach worker has spotted her there a few times, although he usually sees her in the park. He's met her a few times before, spoken with her, trying to find her help.
Elsewhere, volunteers come across a group of people huddled around a fire in the woods in Lexington. They aren't roasting marshmallows or curled up in sleeping bags - they are simply huddled together, trying to keep warm. Unrelated people caring for each other as a family.
A volunteer gets into her car after completing her first survey and cries. Another volunteer leaves a hygiene kit in a make-shift living room found under a bridge. As he leaves, he notices a calendar on the wall.
Never miss a local story.
That night, like many nights, the Family Shelter is filled to capacity - 15 families - mothers and fathers with young children in need of a safe, stable place for the night.
People become homeless for many reasons. Each one of the 1,006 people found that night represents a unique story of someone's parent, brother, sister, child or friend.
That night, more than 100 volunteers in the Midlands conducted the 2009 homeless count. These volunteers, along with local providers, surveyed homeless people in Richland and Lexington counties in an attempt to create a snapshot of homelessness in our community. This snapshot told us of 1,006 people living in shelters, on the street and under bridges that night.
The stories gathered that night are critical to informing and identifying community needs. This year, we learned that homelessness in Richland County increased by 15 percent since the last count two years earlier. More than half of those identified during the January one-day count had been homeless for more than a month, and more than a third had been homeless more than a year. Another third of those identified during the count were defined as unsheltered, meaning they literally live on the streets, in the woods or under bridges. One in four homeless adults was a veteran.
We know that many more people cycle in and out of homelessness during the year beyond the 1,006 identified during the single night of the count. Research tells us that a one-day total can be multiplied by as much a six times to gauge the true number of people homeless each year. As many as 15 percent of us will experience homelessness at least once in our lifetime. The margin between being housed and homeless can be as narrow as one missed paycheck or unexpected expense.
We have many strengths. We are a community that can come together to raise money, raise awareness and raise expectations. The Midlands Housing Alliance is working to develop a housing and services center in downtown Columbia - where it is needed most. The Midlands Transition Center will be a 24/7 alternative to the church steps, campsites, library and parks. It will have a continuum of services, outreach and housing to support people in regaining their lives. As a community, we must continue to support the development of the center with our dollars and encourage local elected officials to do the same.