Today is Sunday, April 20, 2014

Cold weather causes concerns for needy, elderly

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By ZACK OWENSBYThe Wilson Post

With forecasts of lows in the single digits tonight and tomorrow night, most Wilson County residents don’t have to worry about a warm bed and a hot meal.

But for the increasing population that doesn’t have permanent housing, as well as residents such as the elderly living on a fixed income, the threat of severe weather is a real concern for safety and well-being.

According to many concerned individuals, the non-permanently housed individuals and families are growing in number here.

“The number of homeless or those who sleep in their vehicles is growing, if anything,” said Gail Proctor, director of the Wilson County Community Help Center. She works with needy families on a daily basis and said in her opinion the number of homeless has increased from last year.

“People talk about how bad last year was (with regard to the homeless population) and how many (homeless) we had, but I think it’s been worse this year,” she added.

While the concern may be growing, Lebanon volunteers may be getting better at serving those in need.

Liz Reese, director of Brooks House, thinks the current state of homeless in Lebanon is improving, even if the numbers are growing.

The Brooks House has been an option for many families, but it currently gives shelter to women and children, as well as having limited housing capabilities. It can’t give shelter to everyone in need.

Because of the lack of alternative options for shelter in Lebanon, the homeless are often forced to sleep in their vehicles, rent a motel room, or semi-permanently rent space at one of the county’s campgrounds, sleeping in tents or mobile homes.

According to management at Timberline Campground on Murfreesboro Road/Highway 231 South, approximately 35-40 of their current residents are renting campsites due to financial hardship. 

But Reese also said that she works with the American Red Cross to get aid to families in need if the Brooks House is full or their needs cannot be met there. There are four families that are residing temporarily in hotel rooms here courtesy of Reese, local donors and the Red Cross. She added that there are no families sleeping in tents to her knowledge, which is an improvement from just a few weeks ago.

And Reese would know. She and other volunteers comb the city on cold nights looking for people sleeping in cars, wandering the streets or staying inside 24-hour restaurants and businesses.

“We are ready and waiting for calls from people who need help,” Reese said. “But the real need in Wilson County is for a warming station like they have in Nashville. We’d love for a church or business to step up on extreme occasions like this weekend to offer a blanket, a cup of coffee, maybe a cot to rest on for 24 to 48 (hours) or so.”

There are at least two churches in Lebanon that are Red Cross Certified whose members said they are just waiting for word from the Red Cross pitch in.

Even the Lebanon Police Department and Wilson County Sheriff’s Department step up on the most dangerous of weather systems.

Lebanon Police Chief Scott Bowen said he reminds all his officers to keep a look out for people in need, locating them and then helping them get in contact with people at local churches or organizations.

“People in this community, our churches, some of businesses, people like Liz, they are making a huge difference for so many people who have come on hard times,” Bowen said.

“And even sometimes the officers take it on themselves to do what they can to help out.”

Elderly on fixed incomes a concern

Residents with fixed incomes, especially the elderly, are at risk when temperatures fall, also.

“Although we haven’t seen much increase in requests for assistance with utilities so far, we are expecting an increase in the next couple of weeks when the bills increase,” the Community Help Center’s Proctor said.

Financial concerns lead to inquiries at the local utilities company about its policies for working with customers during this difficult time.

Jerry Snodgrass with the City of Lebanon Gas Department said delinquent gas accounts will not be shut off until the temperature reaches 32 degrees and rising per city ordinance.

Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Cooperative’s Todd Palmer said that customer service representatives are willing to work with members who are having difficulty paying their bill, deciding on courses of action on a case-by-case basis.

MTEMC gives funds from several programs for families in need to the Wilson County Community Help Center.

The Round-Up program at Middle Tennessee Electric allows members to round up their bills to the nearest dollar, then MTE collects that money for the Help Center.

The Customers Care program is a donation option that many members use to contribute specifically for families who are having trouble paying their bills.

And the Harmony Bill Pay program is available to elderly members whose primary income source is Social Security or disability checks. It allows late fees to be waived for those who qualify.

Staff Writer Zack Owensby may be contacted at zowensby@wilsonpost.com.

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