Problems faced by the homeless population in Cleveland and Bradley County are as diverse as the people counted for annual statistics.
Homelessness Research Institute statistics revealed an estimated 636,017 people experienced homelessness in the United States on any given night in 2011. According to further research, the numbers equal a rate of 21 homeless people per 10,000 general population. The same math applied to Bradley County’s 150,000 residents equals a potential 315 homeless people.
Nonprofit organizations, churches, the soup kitchen, an emergency shelter, several local politicians and concerned residents are aware of the issue.
Sharon Foskey said she has aided more than 100 homeless individuals.
“We as a community need to accept responsibility. This is a problem we have and it is our problem to fix,” said Foskey, who used to be homeless herself.
Data collected last year by the Cleveland City Schools system revealed at least 20 students qualified as homeless. Homelessness is not always a concern easily noticed by the public, though once a person decides to pay attention the need is seen, Foskey said.
“That small percentage [of homeless] creates Bradley County quite a big problem. My Mama used to say it like this, ‘One bad apple can spoil the bushel,’” Foskey said. “It does not take a large number of people to create a problem.”
Her knowledge on the homeless is based on personal interactions and life experiences. By her own account, she was homeless off and on for five years. Her history gives her empathy for the plight of the homeless.
“It gives me an empathy, not a sympathy. The last thing these people on the streets need is sympathy,” Foskey said. “There are a lot of people who feel sorry for them; that ain’t going to help them.”
Empathy reaches down and helps up, according to Foskey.
She is helping those in need through her thrift store, Heavenly Treasures, found on Broad Street S.W. Foskey developed a reputation of being dependable by lending a constantly helping hand.
“They know they can come here and they will first get a warm smile, and they will not be asked a bunch of questions,” Foskey said.
Recipients of Foskey’s help receive three pairs of underwear, bottoms and tops. Additional requests for thermal underwear, tents, sleeping bags, tarps, furniture and household items are provided from available stock. All profits made by the store go into its continued existence.
“I do not take one copper penny,” Foskey said. “Because of my willingness to give to them without asking for anything in return, they come back to me. And then they come back again and again.”
Aid has been offered to many of Cleveland and Bradley County’s homeless.
“I have been able to watch transformations. There are many who have come to me who are now no longer on the streets,” Foskey said.
Hers is a story of hope.
“I have been able to minister to them through love. Many of them have given their lives to Jesus Christ,” Foskey said.
A classic homeless scene is a man holding a cardboard sign on a street corner. Another is a woman with a cup seeking change from passersby. Foskey opened the description to include everyone from prostitutes to murderers, victims of abuse, thieves, pimps, drug addicts, liars, alcoholics and those who are simply down on their luck.
“They need someone to sit and listen to them and let them talk without judgment or condemnation. A rapport needs to be built because their trust has been broken by so many,” Foskey said. “They need people to teach them how to love again.”
Many homeless people do not know who they are anymore, Foskey said. Their current personality has been molded by a desire to survive. She described them as being chameleons.
“They need to find themselves. …They have been chameleons for too long,” Foskey said. “Alcoholics and addicts are masters of manipulation, masters of intimidation. They can appear to be the nicest, sweetest person to get what they need.”
According to Foskey, what they need is a place to resume growth.
“The soup kitchen is great … but they need more than that. An emergency shelter is great for the night, but it is only a place to get a meal at night and lay down to sleep,” Foskey said. “You have to leave in the morning. You are on your own to fend for yourself all day.”
Larger counties, like Hamilton, have a network of services to meet the homeless demands. Foskey said she would like to open a place where the whole person is treated. She said they need help on a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual level. To accomplish her goal she will need a building, workers, electricians, plumbers, board members and many more volunteers.
The homeless can often be seen walking around in downtown Cleveland, Foskey said.
“People have gotten desensitized. They no longer care. They see them, but they do not see them. It is willful blindness,” Foskey said. “A lot of people do not know how to help them.”
She recognized there are people who would offer help if only they knew how.
“I need men and women who have a heart, but who may not know what to do or where to go to offer their services,” Foskey said. “I need them to come see me.”