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Thu January 28, 2010
Counting in the Counted Out
By Kevin Lavery, WKAR News
Lansing, MI – This morning, a quiet humanitarian mission is wrapping up in Lansing. Since midnight, a small band of social workers and volunteers have been braving the cold, scouring the streets in search of the homeless. They've been checking on their needs and guiding them to shelter. WKAR's Kevin Lavery went along with them.
It's midnight in Lansing, and we're at the Volunteers of America office on North Larch Street. Coordinator Sharon Dade is briefing me and the other four members of my team on our battle plan.
"So, we're going to start on the riverwalk, probably over by the market," Dade says. "And we'll split and go north and south."
My team is one of several that will fan out to some of the known hot spots where Lansing's homeless take refuge. Places like viaducts and highway overpasses. Anyplace out of the biting cold -- and out of sight.
The VOA's Patrick Patterson is my team leader. At 12:15, he's driving us to our first stop.
"I hope to find nobody, but we may find folks congregated under the bridge here," Patterson says.
Armed only with flashlights and a clipboard, Patterson is checking locked doors, behind stairwells, and along the riverbank. So far, there's no one in sight. That's not unexpected this early in the night. It's cold, but not like past years. The weather brings one particular success story to mind.
"The last count night, it was even colder than this," he remembers. "And we started a little earlier than 12:30. We ran across a guy in the streets, and it turned out to be a good story, because we were able to make contact with him, get him some help. And today he's still housed. So, that was a life saved, and that was cool."
Patterson does social work for a living. Even so, we have a true expert on our team tonight. Scott Dotson knows what, and often who to look for.
"I used to be like this about three years ago; I used to be homeless," Dotson explains. "I've been volunteering ever since. I recognize a lot of people. There's not too many homeless people that I wouldn't run into, or at least recognize their face or they'd recognize me."
Our search turns up no one.
The evening soon falls into a rhythm of bumpy drives and spot checks. Patterson and I visit several highway overpasses. The summits of their steep enbankments block the wind but not the traffic noise.
At 1:45, a stiff wind is rattling chain link fences and trash dumpster lids. Our team's flashlights slice the night, revealing small hints that people were once here but have since moved on.
Just before 2 a.m., we learn that two men have been found nearby. One decided to come to the VOA shelter. The other has chosen to tough it out. My team decides to pay him a courtesy call.
Two o'clock. Tucked away beneath a dark, noisy bridge overpass, we meet Alfred. He's an olive-skinned man, late forties, wrapped in blankets, cigarette in hand. A collection of plastic grocery bags hold his worldly possessions.
"I've been down here for seven months," says Alfred. "I had a house, cars I had everything. I had a wife, I have four children. Everything just fell apart, man, when I went to jail."
Alfred doesn't talk about why he was in jail. But he does reveal he has cancer. When we ask him if he needs help, Alfred chooses to make his stand right here.
"What's keeping you out here on such a cold night and not coming to a shelter?" asks Lavery.
"Just...I want to be by myself," Alfred says. "I don't want nobody controlling me, basically. You know. When you're in jail, people control you. I don't want to be controlled. I do this because I want to do this, because I can survive."
There are others like Alfred. Patrick Patterson knows that. But he's also helped a few along the way. And his own sense of compassion fuels his mission.
"God's happy with any of our successes," he says. "He loves us all the same, and I think that's basically why I'm here to serve."