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Homeless: Nowhere to turn for help

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By Rachel Johnson, Staff Writer

Last week I received a phone call from my editor saying she thought there was a homeless couple sitting in front of the entrance to Walmart. She knew I was working on a story about homelessness in Brunswick County and suggested I check it out.

I was just leaving the Beacon for the evening and decided to head over. As I arrived I saw a couple that appeared to be about my age. They were sitting on the ground holding a sign that read “Please Help.”

I pulled over and parked. I tried to decide what I should do. I had no money to give them, no food and my truck isn’t big enough for a ride. But I got out and walked over.

As I approached, the man walked away toward the gas station across Main Street. I admit I was a bit relieved. I was scared to get involved. I didn’t know their story or why they were on the corner.

I knelt down to talk to the young woman who quickly told me she and her husband were stranded in Shallotte. Their car had broken down in Wilmington. Somehow they had made it to Shallotte and were trying to raise enough money to get a place to sleep for the night.

She asked me what hotels might be nearby. As I dialed 411 to find out rates, an officer from the Shallotte Police department arrived. About the same time the man returned from the store.

The officer advised the couple it was against town ordinance to ask for money. The girl quickly pointed out their sign simply asked for help. I spoke with the officer and he said he might be able to help them through a voucher program offered by area churches. He said he was going to make a few phone calls.

I was relieved. I thanked the officer, wished the couple well and drove away. I was barely to Cheers Plaza on Main Street when my phone rang. It was the officer.

The voucher program was out of money and there was no assistance available. I let him know I would return to the Beacon office and see if I could find someone to help.

Now the problem became where to start. I knew several area churches had resources available to help homeless people in our county and I knew Brunswick Family Assistance would be able to point me in the right direction. One major problem though: it was after 6 p.m. and no one was available to answer phones.

I had a flyer on my desk from Building Hope Ministries about a weekly free breakfast program they recently began in Shallotte. There was a number on the flyer and I took a chance.

The answering machine picked up. I left a message thinking no one would call me back until the next morning.

In the meantime, I posted a message on Facebook. And then I got out the trusty phonebook and began calling area churches. I started at the top of the list. Phone call after phone call was greeted by answering machines. After about a dozen calls, someone picked up.

She was working late assisting a local family with their power bill and was expecting a call back. She said the church had been overwhelmed recently with people in distress needing assistance.

While I talked to her, my cell phone rang. I picked up and Donna Phelps of Building Hope Ministries was on the other line. She was in the car driving back to Brunswick County from Raleigh but she had checked her messages at the office and called me back.

It was a rather unusual phone call. I had never spoken to her before and here I was asking for help for a couple I didn’t know.

She advised me there was a prayer meeting in Shallotte involving numerous area pastors and suggested I try to speak with them. I bolted from the office and headed to the church. At the church I was told to go ahead and bring the couple there and the pastors would help when the meeting was over. The couple was also invited to join the service.

I rushed back to the Walmart parking lot where there were now three officers waiting with the couple. I let them know what I had found out and the police offered to take the couple to the church.

It was now more than two hours after I initially received the phone call. The entire experience was a tremendous lesson for me. What I learned frightened me.

There isn’t anywhere for homeless people in Brunswick County to go. The nearest shelters are in Little River, S.C., and Wilmington. If you need assistance after 5 p.m., it is the luck of the draw as to who will answer the phone and who will help. If you can get to a phone at all, that is.

The experience came just a week before I spent the night in a Homeless Village in an effort to bring awareness to the homeless population in Brunswick County. It brought the entire experience that much closer to home.

There are homeless people in Brunswick County and they need help. I have no idea where the couple went or what happened. The young woman left me a message at the Beacon the next day simply saying thank you.

I want to thank those who got involved and helped. Instead of looking the other direction, they lent a helping hand and made a difference in two people’s lives. I challenge everyone to think about what they can do to help others.