The plight of the homeless across the United States and right here in Lincoln County can result in a range of emotions from the community. These emotions can be pity or sympathy, frustration and, even in some instances, disgust. No matter the feelings, it may be difficult to understand what the living situations of these people are really like.
Students at the Lincoln Charter School Denver campus held their annual Box City homelessness awareness event Nov. 19-20. This year, the goal of the nearly 50 participants was to change their understanding of and feelings about homelessness. Instead of simply attempting to recreate the experience of what a homeless person deals with on a day-to-day basis by staying overnight in cardboard boxes or a mock shelter, they went out into the field to actually do something about the plight of Lincoln County’s homeless population.
The first year Zack Horton, who is now a senior at Lincoln Charter, participated in Box City, the students camped outside in the soccer field at the school in cardboard boxes using burn barrels for warmth. There was no service initiative that year, and weather didn’t permit the event the next year.
For the past two years, Horton has been a member of the school’s Leadership Institute and has been on the team organizing Box City. Last year, the students slept in the gym at the Lincolnton campus as if it were a mock homeless shelter. The next day, they went to Hesed House of Hope and East Lincoln Christian Ministries to serve the homeless.
“This year, we are focusing on empathizing with the homeless rather than sympathizing,” he said. “Everyone feels bad about the homeless, but no one wants to take that step to go help them. Donating money is great and is extremely helpful, but time and effort can sometimes be more valuable. Personally I believe to empathize is more of a call to action than only sympathizing with the situation of the homeless.”
This year, the students had a homeless shelter experience again, this time at Sally’s YMCA, followed up with a service event at Hesed House, East Lincoln Christian Ministries and the Asbury Resource Center.
“While helping at East Lincoln Christian Ministries last year I was able to interact with homeless people for the whole day,” Horton said. “Most people think of a homeless person as someone who’s addicted to some form of drug or doesn’t make good life decisions. Talking to the people and hearing their stories really changed my perspective on how easy it is to become homeless.”
A real-life ‘box city’
Located in Lincolnton, Hesed House is Lincoln County’s only homeless shelter. Until 2008, there wasn’t a homeless shelter in the county at all. In December 2007 a call to action was done via a type of box city on Courthouse Square in downtown Lincolnton.
A group of individuals, including Cathy Davis, Franklin Lowery, Tony Carpenter, Kathy Rhine, Karen Carnes, Marti and Robert Hovis, Carl Higgenbathum, Cristina Arlow and Donna Beal and her three daughters camped out in cardboard boxes. After that, donations and support started pouring in to support opening a homeless shelter in the county.
For several years the shelter facilities were rotated between five area churches. After years of fundraising, the permanent facility located at Ann Gaither Court was constructed, opening in 2012.
Hesed House is still Lincoln County’s only homeless shelter that houses a couple dozen people. Even though there is a shelter available, space is limited, and prior to entering the shelter, people have to pass an alcohol and drug test. Those who can’t, or won’t, stay at the shelter make other arrangements such as sleeping in tents. Shelter Director John Hall is in touch daily with these people, checking on them at least once a day.
During the students’ service time as part of the Box City initiative, Horton and Madison Taylor, also a senior at Lincoln Charter, took a break from cleaning and organizing the shelter to walk with Hall to do his daily checks.
“It makes what we’ve been working on more real,” Taylor said as she walked through the woods back to the shelter. “I saw the tents when I was here last year, but there’s more now. Given it’s almost winter, it’s hard to think about being that cold. We were cold last night at the Y, and we complained about that. Imagine being outside in this weather.”
At one time, Hesed House was only open from October through April. This is the first year it’s been open all year.
“We started a waiting list several months ago because we knew cold weather was coming,” Hall said. “Right now I have seven men and two women on the list. The Christian Ministry says that there’s upward of 60 people that they interview on a weekly basis that are homeless. Kids helping out like this gives the residents hope. I tell them that’s where it starts – with the young people. The hearts of the young people in our community are huge.”