Earl Williams, a 51 year old formerly homeless man from New Jersey, is one of the many people who have benefitted from Valdosta’s charitable efforts, and now he is opening his doors to spread his own goodwill.
“Wednesday of last week, I invited three homeless men to my house to get them out of the cold,” Williams said. “When I was homeless and in the street, I didn’t have anybody to help me, so if someone needs a place to crash for the night, my house is open and welcome.”
Williams, a current welder, has been able to rebuild his life effectively with the charitable efforts of Mission Point Baptist Church located in downtown Valdosta.
“When I first started coming down here, two of the brothers in the church found out that I was a welder; they helped me get my tools, one gave me about $600 worth of tools, the other gave me about $300 worth of tools,” Williams said. “I got back on the job and started working using the tools they gave me, and it was such a blessing.”
Statistics show that homelessness is not only a local problem, but a national one as well.
The nation’s homeless population increased by approximately 20,000 people from 2008 to 2009. The total number of homeless people in America is approximately 670,000, according to a report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The Alliance estimates that in the next three years homelessness in the United States could increase by five percent, or 74,000 people.
The homeless population in Valdosta currently ranges from about 150 to 200 people and increased slightly in September.
Gayle Moreen, the day center coordinator at Lowndes Associated Ministries to People, has a theory as to why Valdosta experienced the recent increase.
“There are a lot of families,” Moreen said. “Most of them are just having a hard time right now. Lack of education, laid off, they’ve gotten far behind.”
The economy also factors into the number of people who flock to the shelter and the day center throughout the year. Moreen claims to personally service about 80 to 90 a month.
According to Lt. Aaron Kirk from the Valdosta Police Department, the problem of homelessness in Valdosta is nothing new.
“There are a lot of them around the mall and business areas,” Kirk said. “They are also heavily populated around the interstate and downtown areas where there are hotels and motels.”
Officer Vernotis Williams, VPD community policing officer, agrees that these areas are heavily populated.
“I see them mostly around the East and West Hill areas,” Williams said. “It’s close to the interstate, so when cars are coming into Valdosta, they can stop them right there and get their funds.”
“They solicit food and money which can cause traffic problems because it gets backed up,” Kirk said. “Businesses have created ordinances to try to prevent this.”
Kirk feels the ordinances have made a slight difference.
“I’ve seen a slight decrease since the businesses passed their ordinance law,” Kirk said.
Williams agrees that the problems with the homeless not only seem to be ongoing, but a nuisance to residents.
“Most people, from a civilian point of aspect complain about the campsites that homeless people have; most people call it tent city,” Williams said. “It’s usually in a wooden area not too far from a r
residential area, and a lot of people complain about the site itself being an eye sore.”
Williams also expressed several other inconveniences that seem to be a result of the homeless.
“People have also complained about sometimes when the homeless get food or something from people just passing by, they’ll take the containers, boxes bags, etc., and because they don’t have a trash resource, they may just throw it on the curb, or leave it where they are.”
According to Kirk, the VPD conducts field interviews in order better identify the homeless.
“What happens is an officer is out and they see them, possibly on the side of the road or walking the street so we talk to them and get their information, “ Lieutenant Kirk said. “ It’s a consensual encounter and it makes them easily identifiable.”
Officer Williams also agreed that the background checks are useful.
“For some of them who want to go to places like the Salvation Army, like when it’s extremely cold or extremely hot, or if they try to stay for a few days, they have to come here and get a background check,” Williams said.
According to Kirk, the VPD attempts not to be confrontational with them.
“As long as they’re not causing citizens problems, we try not to harass them too much,” Kirk said. “The majority of them are down on their luck so we try not to compound them.”
Those that are down on their luck can turn to pastor Mike Nelligan.
“We try to give them a new support system and a new family,” said Nelligan.
The support found at Mission point includes PowerPoint bible studies, contemporary music, and hot meals after services.
“What we attempt to do here is on Wednesday and Sunday night, as well as Sunday morning, we provide a hot meal and operate a clothes closet in the back,” Nelligan said.
The clothes closet in the back is designed for the homeless to come get clothes, blankets, sleeping bags, and other necessities.
“It’s a pretty simple operation,” Nelligan said. “What we do it make things available to people that couldn’t get it otherwise.”
Nelligan feels the clothes closet serves as a special purpose.
“It’s especially helpful in the winter time when the weather is dangerously cold, we let them come inside and let them use the church building as a survival shelter,” Nelligan said.
Nelligan believes that Mission point offers beneficial services.
“I’m a certified addictions counselor, and I work at behavioral health services, and we try to link some of them up with that when they’re ready,” Nelligan said. “Typically we try to build long terms relationships with them and encourage them to make spiritual connections.
According to Nelligan, Mission point serves more men than families with small children.
“On any given Sunday we’ll see somewhere from around 80 to 100 people,” Nelligan said. “Probably 80-90 percent of that group is men who are homeless from criminal activity, addiction, etc.”
Nelligan believes though there aren’t many families that come in, Mission Point does see them from time to time.
“We are starting to see more families with small children show up lately, not in great numbers yet ,about five or six of them,” Nelligan said.
According to Nelligan, Mission Point yields many success stories. Once such success story is Henry Moore, a 67 year old Valdosta man formerly addicted to crack cocaine for 22 years.
“One day I happened to be walking up and down Ashley Street where Mission Point is located and I just saw people in here eating and I was hungry and homeless,” Moore said. “I just came in to get some food, but when I got the food, I didn’t just get ushered out like so many other places, I got fellowship from the congregation of people that were here.
Moore, who has been attending the church now for four years, believes that the church is open to anybody in need, no matter their situation.
“Despite the condition I was in, they put their arms around me and showed me love and heard my story,” Moore said. “It was just the love of Christ I saw these people exemplify that made me want to be a part of that love.”
Moore is no longer homeless, and has now gone on to stay at the Ashley house, federally subsidized housing apartments for low income elderly people located across the street from Mission Point.
Moore feels his housing is a blessing from his previous life.
“I have a one bedroom apartment that I have been staying at for four years now, with my own kitchen and a living room,” Moore said. “You just pay 30 percent of your income; I’m retired now so I get a check.”
Moore has now gone on to be one of the leaders at Mission point.
“I’ve came a long way from active cocaine addiction to one of the leaders here at this church, and now it’s been blessing after blessing. “ I’ve gone on with my life and put my life and trust in God’s hands.”