Wednesday, February 4, 2009

REPORTER BLOG: Surviving The Streets

by Megan Gorey

Probably the hardest part about being a reporter is finding that perfect story. You head into the newsroom every morning hoping for some breaking news or a opportunity for that inside interview that will unfold into a piece that you can truly be proud of. But, some times, you have mornings when a story falls into your lap and provides a lesson when you least expect it.

Meeting the ACHC
The morning that I was assigned to an interview with the chair of the Athens County Housing Coalition and the Executive Director of Athens Metropolitan Housing brought exactly the type of story that caught me off guard. I was not surprised by the impact or importance of the story, but rather how the story affected me personally.

I had the chance to interview Terri Gillespie, the Chair of the Athens County Housing Coalition (ACHC), about the Point-In-Time Program. What shocked me most about the interview was the startling statistics on homelessness in Athens and all of Ohio, and the resource struggles to help. According to the ACHC, a snapshot survey found about 13,000 Ohioans were homeless during a single 24-hour period in 2008.

Image courtesy of Good Works, Inc.

The Point-In-Time Program counts the homeless population in Athens and across Ohio during one 24 hour period. Volunteer teams went out to local shelters including Good Works, which is the only homeless shelter in the surrounding 8 counties, and churches, like First United Methodist Church, that have outreach programs or soup kitchens. Some groups in Hocking County even went out as "street teams" to do visual head-counts as well as utilizing surveys. The Point-In-Time count serves as a "snapshot" to provide a more accurate portrayal of housing problems experienced in Athens County.

The count was conducted over a 24-hour period in January to emphasize the harsh living conditions of the homesless during this frigidly cold month. The Athens County volunteers passed out surveys to collect information about those people who are without homes and those who are at risk of homelessness. This year's surveys also included questions about home foreclosures.

What's the Point?
These surveys were given to people who called or walked-in to receive services throughout the week. The surveys were collected all last week from local community agencies and are being analyzed by OGUARD. The information from the surveys helps the coalition to gain state and federal funding to aid the area homeless shelters.

Terri Gillespie talks about why Athens needs the Point-In-Time Program

Sweet Home Athens
What I found particularly interesting about the story was how the counts conducted in Athens County differ from those in urban areas such as Cleveland or Columbus. Keith Andrews, executive director of the Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority, explained what makes Athens County unique and difficult to count.

"We live in a rural area where family ties are still strong and people believe in taking care of their own. It's not uncommon to see thirteen family members living in a single house. Many people double or triple up by moving in with other family members until they wear out their welcome and move on."
Keith Andrews, AMHA

Finding Shelter
The street/unsheltered count requires identification of homeless people who are living on the street, in abandoned buildings, in their vehicles, chicken coops, tents, shanties, parks, woods, transportation stations, or other places not meant for human habitation. Athens County first participated in the Point-In-Time Program in 2005.

The results from last year's 2008 count showed that:

*10,327 (81%) Ohioans were considered to be "sheltered" homeless
*2,492 (19%) Ohioans were considered to be "unsheltered" homeless

Snow Day
The day following the interview was a snow day for Ohio University because of the snow and ice storm we had Tuesday night. As I sat in my heated living room, playing Wii with my roommates, my mind drifted outside to the bitter wind and cold conditions. My heart went out to those who had to fight to find shelter to survive the storm.

Although we are all feeling the affects of the recession and current economic conditions, my personal impact seems insignificant in comparison to the sting that local shelters and food banks are feeling. Good Works is currently trying to commission a new house for additional shelter because there is simply not enough space for all its residents. The shelves at many food banks are sparse and the government is tightening regulations regarding who qualifies for the assistance. Suddenly, not being able to afford to go on a spring break trip this year or buy a new iPhone didn't seem so important.

Overall, this story made me a little more thankful for even having the opportunity to attend college, to have clothes on my back to come to the station, and food in my tummy when I start work in the morning. It is stories like this one that make you stop in your tracks, as a reporter, and thank your lucky stars that you are so fortunate.

Public Assistance
If you or someone you know needs support from the Coalition, please contact one of the participating agencies in Athens County: Good Works, Community Action (HAPCAP), Habitat for Humanity, Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, Integrated Services of Appalachian Ohio, The Gathering Place and Athens County Job & Family Services.

The next ACHC meeting is April 15th at noon if you would like to get involved with helping the homeless in the Athens community.

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