"Merry Christmas to Me" ...a story from NWA Homeless Census

We asked a few of the people who helped conduct the 2011 NWA Homeless Census to share their experience. This is from Ryan Riley...

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I was looking forward to helping out with the survey and was originally supposed to do a shift at lunchtime at 7 Hills on Friday.  At the training meeting, Kevin Fitzpatrick asked if I'd be able to come down and go out to the various camps in Fayetteville early Friday morning as well.  Going to 7 Hills was one thing, but I wasn't sure what to think about actually going out into the woods.  That made things much more "real" for me.

As we walked up on the first tents we found, I was incredibly nervous.  It was 5:30 in the morning, pitch black dark, we were in police cars and we were essentially going into these people's homes to wake them up and ask them questions.  The first tents we came across were empty, so we hoped they'd sheltered somewhere overnight.  As we looked around the place, I didn't really know what to think.  Shock is probably a good word.

We ended up finding 4 people in a couple of tents a bit farther down the road and, to my surprise, they were more than happy to talk with us, even though we'd woken them up.  We continued on and found more camps, but didn't find many people "home."  I'm hoping that means they found warmer shelter for the night.

A few different things really struck me and, quite simply, made me extremely sad.

One of these was when Officer Sarah parked us at one of the camps and we were literally right across the road from a house I lived in while a student at the U of A.  Right across the street.  I couldn't help but wonder if someone had been living in those trees the whole time I lived there and I never noticed.

Another is shown in the attached photo.  The occupant of one of the tents we found had decorated for Christmas.  On a tree by the tent they'd nailed a bicycle reflector to a tree and written "Merry Christmas To Me" on it.  I think that one affected several of us, since I saw a few of us take a photo of it.

I was looking forward to helping out with the survey and was originally supposed to do a shift at lunchtime at 7 Hills on Friday. At the training meeting, Kevin Fitzpatrick asked if I'd be able to come down and go out to the various camps in Fayetteville early Friday morning as well. Going to 7 Hills was one thing, but I wasn't sure what to think about actually going out into the woods. That made things much more "real" for me.

As we walked up on the first tents we found, I was incredibly nervous. It was 5:30 in the morning, pitch black dark, we were in police cars and we were essentially going into these people's homes to wake them up and ask them questions. The first tents we came across were empty, so we hoped they'd sheltered somewhere overnight. As we looked around the place, I didn't really know what to think. Shock is probably a good word.

We ended up finding 4 people in a couple of tents a bit farther down the road and, to my surprise, they were more than happy to talk with us, even though we'd woken them up. We continued on and found more camps, but didn't find many people "home." I'm hoping that means they found warmer shelter for the night.

A few different things really struck me and, quite simply, made me extremely sad.

One of these was when Officer Sarah parked us at one of the camps and we were literally right across the road from a house I lived in while a student at the U of A. Right across the street. I couldn't help but wonder if someone had been living in those trees the whole time I lived there and I never noticed.

Another is shown in the attached photo. The occupant of one of the tents we found had decorated for Christmas. On a tree by the tent they'd nailed a bicycle reflector to a tree and written "Merry Christmas To Me" on it. I think that one affected several of us, since I saw a few of us take a photo of it.

Lastly, I saw a woman with 3 kids, ages 5, 3 and 2. The 5 year old was a girl and reminded me a lot of my daughter, also 5. She was wearing a cheetah-print coat, just like my daughter, and was also wearing a shirt that my daughter has. I was extremely glad that I got to end that interview when the mother answered the "Where did you sleep last night?" question with "my house." They were just there for lunch.

I'm still trying to decide what I feel about all of it. On the one hand I'm, again, just sad. On the other hand, I'm optimistic that things will get better and that's the point.

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Thanks to Ryan for sharing his experience. The results of the 2011 NWA Homeless Census will be out soon, and the work that everyone did to collect the information will be vital to continuing the efforts of caring for the homeless people in our community.