As thousands of area residents sought safer ground from the impending storm Irma, a smaller, but more vulnerable group – the homeless – may have been asking “what about us?”
In almost every community, faces of the homeless are visible on park benches, under bridges, sleeping inside cars and in “tent” cities. Homeless advocates call them “literally” homeless.
For others, often including young children, there is another definition of homelessness: those who go from “couch to couch,” constantly moving from one motel or shelter to another, with no home of their own. Transportation is usually limited to walking.
For each of these, the uncertainty and anxiety of staying safe during a major storm is lessened by the work of such groups as Family Promise of Bryan County, United Way of the Coastal Empire, the Red Cross, and local churches.
In advance of Irma, Family Promise Network Director Candice Fife and her volunteers were at work to ensure that the homeless had safe passage inland.
Whether it was distributing vouchers to fill up the tanks of those who could not afford to gas up in order to evacuate, or directing them to Red Cross-operated shelters, it was Family Promise’s mission to provide relief.
In all, Family Promise helped three Bryan County families fill their gas tanks.
“We went out on Friday, before the mandatory evacuation on Saturday to give them gas cards,” Fife said. “I had to get them out of harm’s way.” Since they had no place to stay, these families were pointed to Family Promise’s Augusta affiliate.
Homeless advocates, like Family Promise, say the hardest part is getting the word out about their available services and a realization that some may not hear the advance warning and end up still on the street during such adverse conditions.
“Bryan County (officials) did a really good job to keep everyone informed (of the hurricane and its path),” Fife said. “The storm was very unpredictable, but we did the right thing in transporting people out of town.”
Even after the evacuation order, Fife said her agency got two calls requesting assistance. She said the two were directed to the Red Cross, who guided them to safety.
The Bryan County affiliate, which relies on donations, grants and a $12,000 per year assistance from the United Way, collaborates with local churches and social services agencies to help families become financially stable and independent.
Kristi Cox, Bryan County Area Director for the United Way of the Coastal Empire, and Tonya Henderson, Program Coordinator, see first-hand the need by families to get help, not only during emergency weather situations, but throughout the year.
“There are homeless groups that come and go,” Henderson said, citing a group of individuals who could be seen behind businesses off Highway 17 near I-95, until recently disbanding.
Bryan County does not have homeless shelters, Cox said, and for that reason, local agencies like the United Way can only offer motel accommodations for lodging.
Churches can also play a role, both in providing temporary shelter in their buildings, and also with their food and clothing pantries.
First Baptist Church of Richmond Hill was instrumental for those in need after Hurricane Matthew last year. Plans were in place to open their doors to those affected by Irma, but fortunately the impact of the storm was less than expected, and ultimately did not require that need.
Fife doesn’t know exactly how many people in Bryan County are homeless, but last year her agency worked with 75 families, including 168 children. The organization only works with those who are drug tested and have background checks done. “We need to protect the volunteers’ safety,” she emphasized.
“Many don’t know we’re here,” Fife added. “And we can only help families if they want to be helped.”
To contact Family Promise of Bryan County, a 24-hour hotline is available: 912-388-6522. Their website is familypromisebryancounty.org.
If you need help from Irma-related storm damage, contact the Bryan County Office of the United Way of the Coastal Empire at 912-459-4111.