CARBONDALE — It's about 10 p.m., the dark obscuring the faces huddled outside the building.

The man, who says he is 64 years old, is "home" for the night.

"This is my bedroom," he says, pointing to a two-foot high roll of blankets and comforters.

"Bedroom" is the front part of an abandoned building, a place the man has called home for the past three years.

This night, three other people are in his home. One, a woman who peeks her head over her dark comforter to scrutinize strangers who have come to talk to them. Beside her, bundled up in comforters and blankets is a man who peeked over his covers in an initial visit, but now appears to ignore the visitors.

A few feet away from both of them is another massive bundle, what looks to be a brown-taupe tarp covering items, but which Harry says is another man. This bundle doesn't appear to move or stir during a 30-minute visit with these individuals.

Harry is among a handful of people who are homeless, unsheltered in social service speak, who were counted across Southern Illinois on Tuesday night for the annual homeless census point-in-time count. This count indicates to decision makers and policy makers how many people who are homeless live in Southern Illinois.

How many homeless are there?

The count of the number of homeless people from Tuesday night's count won't be known for awhile, said Camille Dorris, executive director of the Southern Illinois Coalition for the Homeless.

That organization is part of the Southern Illinois Continuum of Care Network, which receives funding for services, based on the number of homeless people counted.

In last year's count — which happened Jan. 24, 2017 — there were 435 individuals counted. Of that number, about 32 percent were unsheltered, which means they were not living in a shelter or transitional shelter, but likely living on the streets.

"Unsheltered" is a term used to describe people who do not use shelters and are typically found on the streets, in abandoned buildings or "in other places not meant for human habitation," according to sources at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That 435 included 200 female, 229 males and 6 who identified as transgender. Sixty-two were African-American (14 percent) and 314 were white (72 percent).

More than one fourth of the 435 — almost 26 percent — were children younger than 18 years old (112), who were homeless with at least one adult, according to data from last year's report.

Of those children, 48 were living in a shelter, 34 were in a transitional shelter, and 30 were unsheltered, according to the report.

Of that 435 homeless individuals counted, 247 did not have children; the remainder of those, 188, comprised households with at least one adult and at least one child.

Those who are homeless or unsheltered live throughout the area, said Patty Mullen, executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries of Carbondale. That agency provides emergency shelter and transitional housing and runs an Emergency Assistance Program that helps with rent and mortgage and utilities so that people can stay in their own homes.

"They live in the woods, behind grocery stores, in sheds, overpasses, storm drains, any place they can find refuge from the elements," she said. "I heard a story about a guy in Chicago who was allowing people to stay in his basement but he was shut down as he did not have adequate space, water access, fire codes, etc."

The few counted Tuesday night

No children were encountered during Tuesday night's nearly three-hour count done by Southern Illinois University Carbondale doctoral students Stephanie Jerstad and Brett Lacey. Jerstad leaves each with a resource guide prepared by local community advocates and, in some instances, gallon-sized bags packed with personal hygiene toiletries and other items.

The duo started at Good Samaritan House, for insight on where to find others who are homeless. Good Sam's will conduct its own count, so those who are living there cannot be counted in Jerstad and Lacey's census count.

Those they encounter there can't provide many leads, as they themselves are relatively new to Carbondale.

They share their stories with the count team — one man called Ava police after he found himself kicked out of his girlfriend's apartment during last week's bitter cold and was driven to Good Sam's. Another man newly here from Kentucky "looking for a new lease on life," especially with more stable employment.

And another man who came here from Chester after he lost his job and his brother also told him to leave his place.

These three told stories of irregular work or low-paying jobs, one of them told about how a head injury and child support weakened his ability to keep secure housing.

The duo next head to a site where homeless gather during the day for food, fellowship and warmth. The site is empty and there is no evidence that anyone will be returning anytime soon.

Their next encounter is with another small camp at an abandoned building.

There, they encounter the 64-year-old who explains that he became homeless after he and his wife divorced; she kept the house and he moved out — into homelessness. His old home is not too far from where he hunkers down.

He said people have invited him to stay with them for awhile, but he declines. He keeps clothing and other valuables in his car, which is parked at a friend's house.

He said that during the two-week frigid snap when nighttime temperatures fell below freezing and dipped into the single digits, he still hunkered down for the night at his post outside the closed building.

He does not work, saying no one will hire him, a 64-year-old who is told by some gathered that he looks much younger than his years. He doesn't receive Social Security benefits yet, saying he wants to "max out" — wait three more years until he turns 67 to receive a maximum retirement amount.

He said he's already taken shelter outside the closed building for the past three years. He was there during the nearly two weeks this month when the temperatures plummeted to below freezing, dipping most nights into the single digits. This, even though he heard that the Gaia House had opened as an overnight warming station. Yep, he knew, "from 8 to 8."

He points to the clothing he is wearing, saying he has on about four or five jackets.

He said others who are homeless have told him that they pitch tents throughout the city. Where, he says, he doesn't know.

The final man encountered for the night is a 52-year-old man from Marion, but who found himself in Carbondale a few years ago. For a few nights, he tried to hunker down in a five-foot wide spot between an ice chest and a wall outside a Walnut Street gas station/convenience store.

During the bitterly frigid cold snap a week ago, he found refuge from the cold  in a closed building, given the permission to do so by someone with authority to grant it. Speaking in a quiet voice, he says he prefers to stay away from others, to avoid trouble.

He said he supports himself by collecting cans and other scraps of metal to sale for cash. He receives about $700 a month in disability.

Need for more facilities

During almost two weeks of bitterly cold, below-freezing day and nighttime temperatures this month, Fern Chappell and other board members of the Gaia House opened up the facility as a warming station for people to stay in overnight.

One of those who helped staff at the Gaia House warming station overnight was Scott Martin, a community volunteer and advocate who also heads the Carbondale Interfaith Council.

He said City Manager Gary Williams told him the front hall at the Carbondale Police Department was available to the homeless to warm themselves. He said he was in that area last week and saw a single man sitting on a bench reading a paper.

"I asked and he had come inside to warm up," Martin shared. "Not very comfortable — no beds available — but better than 5 degrees outside."

He also shared the story of a man he met at the warming station, who'd come there after sleeping the cold night before in the woods.

Martin said the man told him that, at night, raccoons often got food he hung up in trees for future use.

When he saw the man a week later, the man was headed to the emergency room for care for his right foot that had turned black on that cold night and the toenail of his big toe had fallen off in the sock, Martin said.

"I'd like to see a larger building than the Good Sam facility," Martin said. "A facility that can house families with children in one area as well as separated areas for vets with PSTD and adults that can't be around children for various reasons, in another section or building would be useful."

"I'm no social worker or expert, but there definitely needs to have additional mental health assistance for some of the homeless," Martin said. "Some people haven't taken medications, or the meds get lost or taken, or they can't afford meds."

Good Samaritan's Mullen echoed his thoughts.

"So we have to look at this issue … helping people," Mullen said. "It’s the right thing to do. Keep them safe, keep our communities safe. But there are many barriers to overcome." 

stephanie.esters@thesouthern.com

618-351-5805

On Twitter: @scribeest

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Reporter

Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Jackson and Union counties.

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