"It's not like Atlanta here, where it's OK to be homeless," Sarah Jones, reporter for the Calhoun Times explained. "This is Gordon County. People think a town gets looked down on if it has homeless people. It's something to be ashamed of here."
It's not surprising that folks down here identify more with Andy Griffith's Mayberry than the inner city. Here folks believe if people work hard, even with a meager income, they can take care of themselves. And inner city issues like substance abuse aren't supposed to mean heroine; addicts are just supposed to be like Mayberry's Otis -- letting himself into jail after a liquor binge.
Consequently, Calhoun doesn't have a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. What some folks here call a shelter is more like a flop house where men stay for $70 to $100 a week and if they don't pay, they're out.
Jones explained all this to us before we went to the encampment in the woods. But the real story of homelessness was next door at the Oglethorpe Inn. Ever since he'd purchased the motel, the owner had taken folks off the street and given them a place to live. Dan, a late-40s unemployed guy living the woods told us, "I think an awful lot of people in the town are indebted to him."
Shawn, 24r, also unemployed, whose girlfriend just died of cancer agreed, "Yeah, I live in there. After my girlfriend passed -- she had a place -- I came up here in the woods with Dan and then the hotel owner took me in over there."
No one would blame a young pretty reporter like Jones for not wanting to wander the thick woods alone; but once she got up there she knew it wasn't sinister, it was just somebody's home. She treated the carefully stowed possessions, tent, and make shift wooden lean-to like private property and politely asked permission to enter the open-air living quarters.
Jones interviewed both men and will do another homeless story: this time about the encampment. She won't disclose the location, but she'll explain the hardship that's plaguing so many in rural Americans.
When we left, I asked Dan and Shawn if we could get them anything. They both said the same thing, "a job." I asked what kind of job. Dan replied, "It doesn't matter. A man can do many things and I'll do anything. Yesterday I moved someone's furniture for $25. I used to work in the carpet factory but that job's gone. And then I tended golf courses but the weather's been bad."
That night we met with the community and church leaders about converting an old private education building into a shelter. There were problems to consider, but luckily the biggest hurdle had been overcome when the area's Baptist coalition donated the building.
Their goal was to provide overnight shelter to single folks and families. To mitigate staffing needs, the clients would have to leave by 8 a.m.
The plan had two big problems. Firstly, it's really difficult to be homeless, but being "turtle homeless" -- carrying everything on one's back -- is super tough. Secondly, the building was a couple of miles out of town and schlepping to and fro could get harsh.
We encouraged them to hire a shelter director and start working out the kinks in their plan. Their desire to build a shelter even though they know that the federal government's reducing funding for shelters. But shelter's still needed and they know it from their first hand from their experience raising $50,000 this year to house folks in hotel rooms. One volunteer explained, "Permanent housing's a great concept, but we need to get folks off the street; sometimes with only a few hours notice."
You can read about the federal housing first model at www.ich.gov.
After a couple of hours of real considered discussion -- and months of hard work -- they accepted the gift of the building, assembled a board, and will now work to provide an emergency shelter for folks until they can get back on their feet.
Ordinary folks in Calhoun now know homelessness isn't just an urban problem and they're doing something about it.
We bid them goodbye and parked in their lot on SR 225 where they let us camp for the night.