The counters spotted Wayne Gaston beneath a pile of blankets under the Interstate 277 overpass Wednesday night, a few feet from snow-covered railroad tracks near the N.C. Music Factory.
He was bundled up in the 28-degree weather, but smiled as he climbed down from the overpass and extended a gloved hand to the volunteers who’d come to ask him questions: How long have you been homeless? Have you been to the hospital recently? Do you have a history of substance abuse?
“My wife died last year,” Gaston, 53, told the Observer. “Money was low, and I’ve been out here ever since.”
With nighttime temperatures expected to dip to around 12 degrees, more than 85 volunteers and charity staffers shivered through wooded areas and abandoned buildings, trying to get an accurate count of the community’s most reclusive homeless people.
Hundreds had flocked to homeless shelters or a warming center operated by the Red Cross. Still, in an hour, counters and police had made contact with five people in the uptown area, including two just outside Chima steakhouse.
The Point In Time Count, a one-night tally of the county’s homeless, has been going on since 1990, but organizers aimed to make this year’s tally the most comprehensive, placing a greater emphasis on finding homeless people in Mecklenburg’s towns.
Last year’s count showed approximately 2,400 homeless and 280 street homeless. Numbers weren’t available late Wednesday for this year.
On Wednesday evening, volunteers also passed out bags of blankets, socks and necessities to the people they came in contact with. And they distributed literature about services available to the homeless.
The counters sought to survey the people they came across to see how many would be eligible for services geared toward the county’s most vulnerable. They also wanted to see how many of the homeless are veterans eligible for special government assistance.
Many of those living in secluded areas are chronically homeless, a segment of the population that costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a year because of the time spent in jail, emergency rooms and hospitals. They are also the most at risk of dying on the streets.
Last week, Riley James Rush, 61, who had a history of homelessness, died on a park bench near a Trade Street hotel. Temperatures were below freezing on the night Riley died, but officials believe a medical condition was the cause.
Liz Clasen-Kelly, one of the organizers of the count, said more people are likely to go to shelters or a city-operated warming center because of this week’s frigid temperatures. Still, many people never go to a shelter, where they would have a chance to take advantage of community help.
“There are some people who for various reasons – mental health or substance abuse – who are hard-core campers,” Clasen-Kelly said. “There are some people who struggle with mental illness, and living with 200 people (in a shelter) is not good for them.”
Among the campers Wednesday night was Maurice Torrence, who was returning to his place under I-277 after dinner.
He said that as long as he could endure the cold, he’d stay outside. Torrence, a Davidson County native, said he’s been on the streets for 18 years, a consequence of what he called “a bad drug habit.”
“I’m banned from the shelter,” he said. “My record is bad from years ago. … I’d rather stay here.”
Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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