Gaston & Catawba

Gaston’s Sleepout for the Homeless sets stage for homeless count

Imagine sleeping outside on a cold winter’s night with minimal material comforts.

The United Way of Gaston County urges residents, organizations and business owners to experience sleeping in the same conditions as a homeless person to raise awareness of homelessness in Gaston County.

The inaugural Sleepout for the Homeless takes place from 6 p.m. Jan. 24 to 6 a.m. Jan. 25 in the United Way of Gaston County’s parking lot.

The idea came from a similar event held by the United Way of the Greater Triangle last year.

“The event will also be tied to a one-night online fundraising drive to benefit organizations that work with the homeless in Gaston County, along with a food and personal care item drive throughout the month of January,” according to the United Way’s website.

With more than 20 people, businesses and organizations already signed up, campaign manager Ashley Smith said more people are interested than they first anticipated.

“Initially, we didn’t think there would be many people interested in sleeping outside overnight, so we had planned on having a small group of us sleeping on the ground with sleeping bags, gloves and jackets,” he said. “Since the response has been much more enthusiastic, we are letting people who attend choose how they want to support the homeless.”

Participants can choose how long they plan to endure the elements, whether that’s a couple of hours, all night or allowing group members to sleep in shifts. Smith also said they are planning to have a kickoff meal for those involved.

The event was also created to raise awareness for the Homeless Point in Time Count, also known as PIT. One day each January, a team of volunteers make contact with all the homeless people in the counties. During that time, they provide supplies, such as a backpack, gloves, food and toiletries, and they gather information about each individual’s living situation. The data is compiled to give annual statistics on local homelessness. These stats help community leaders determine how to better serve the homeless.

Gaston, Lincoln and Cleveland counties’ PIT Count will take place Jan. 28.

Smith, 29, is also the PIT Count coordinator for Gaston County. He said, “Last year, PIT counted 118 unsheltered homeless in our county on a night with freezing temperatures and snowy conditions.”

The United Way of Gaston County’s website states that more than 400 homeless people were identified in the tri-county PIT Count last year. They counted people who were living without shelter and those in churches, homeless shelters or other temporary living conditions.

James Burgess, chairman of the Continuum of Care, said his job is to oversee the PIT Count and work with community leaders to find ways to improve the lives of the homeless. Burgess, along with Bill Steury, president of Cross Co. – Automation Group and longtime supporter of the United Way, were instrumental in bringing Sleepout for the Homeless in Gastonia to the attention of the United Way.

“It’s a great opportunity to engage the community, foster awareness and to give the folks who participate a point of reference,” said Burgess.

Smith hopes this event will give the community a real-life experience of what it’s like to be homeless, as well as start a dialogue to better serve the local homeless community.

“Changing our community starts with identifying the roadblocks that hold people back from having a happy and successful life,” he said. “Homelessness is often a symptom of other problems affecting individuals and families. If we want to truly fix problems, we must start identifying the root causes and that means having a very public dialogue about the issues of homelessness and income instability.”