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Sleep Out for the homeless held at Albany's Turtle Park

Campers brave a chilly night downtown to draw attention to homeless people

Kany Lewis, left, Baibhabon Williams, center, and Shannon Frazier settled in with layered clothing and hot chocolate in support of the Mission Change Sleep Out for the homeless at Turtle Park Friday. The trio are members of the Servant Leadership program at Darton State College. Mission Change Director LaDonna Urick said the expected low temperatures for the 2013 event would be mild compared to previous January Sleep Outs. (Staff photo: Jim West)

Kany Lewis, left, Baibhabon Williams, center, and Shannon Frazier settled in with layered clothing and hot chocolate in support of the Mission Change Sleep Out for the homeless at Turtle Park Friday. The trio are members of the Servant Leadership program at Darton State College. Mission Change Director LaDonna Urick said the expected low temperatures for the 2013 event would be mild compared to previous January Sleep Outs. (Staff photo: Jim West)

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Anthony Johnson performs at the 6th annual Mission Change Sleep Out for the homeless at Turtle Park Friday evening. Many supporters picched tents and bundled up for the night. (Staff photo: Jim West)

ALBANY — With temperatures falling to an eventual 43 degrees just before sunrise Saturday, supporters of Friday night’s 6th annual Mission Change Sleep Out for the homeless warmed themselves with coffee or hot chocolate and ignored the chattering of their own teeth.

Some 200 to 300 Albany area residents, most with homes to return to, were there at Turtle Park downtown to raise money and awareness for the homeless and to listen to music and ideas for helping those less fortunate. Some of them pitched tents in grassy areas with plans to sleep there overnight. “Sleepers” were encouraged to have raised at least $100 for Mission Change.

LaDonna Urick, head of Albany-based Mission Change and organizer of the 12-hour Sleep Outs, said three sessions would be conducted after 7 p.m. to advise participants on how to take positive action against homelessness through the giving of resources rather than money to individuals. Urick said an important step in attacking homelessness is to learn to see the homeless as “real people.”

“You have to become friends with the people you serve,” Urick said. “You’re no better than they are, and when you have those kinds of relationships it helps a lot when you’re trying to do something.

“You do have to be cautious, but at the same time, love ‘em. They can be the hardest people to love sometimes, but there are people who have homes, who are in our families — they’re hard to love, too.”

Urick said a survey done in January showed between 800 and 1,000 homeless people live in Albany. That’s in contrast to the most recent count of the U.S. Census in 2010, which showed just one homeless person. Urick said the census shortfall came because the homeless can sometimes be difficult to identify without knowing where to look.

“Homeless people are not just people on the street,” Urick said, “but in the shelters, ‘precariously” housed and bouncing back and forth between relatives, or living in hotels or in their cars. There are tons of people who don’t realize there’s so much going on in our city and in the nation.”

College student Baibhabon Williams and some friends from the Darton State College Servant Leadership Program came to pitch their tent and to do their part in raising awareness for the homeless.

“It think this is an amazing thing for the community to come out and witness,” Williams said. “When you see homeless people on the street you don’t think twice about it, but they go through a lot. People know, but at the same time they don’t know.”

Shannon Frazier, also a Servant Leadership member, agreed.

“This is a great way to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” Frazier said. “Even though we’re only doing this one night, the fact we’re out of our comfort zone — with no TV or cellphones. It opens my eyes.”

David Blackwell, chair of the Albany-Dougherty Coalition to End Homelessness, was in attendance at the Turtle Park Sleep Out to speak on available resources and directions for the coalitions new plan to reduce or eliminate Albany homeless by 2023.

“We’re in a critical place right now,” Blackwell said. “But I do believe that with organizations like Mission Change and the work the coalition is doing, we’ve rattled the cages of this community.”

Blackwell said he’s puzzled at questions or positions of some Albany City Commission members in regard to the plight of area homeless and their approach toward funding.

“If we could get some of our elected officials to events like these, or take them to a shelter and let them get a glimpse of what life is like for these people, it could make a difference,” Blackwell said. “They can’t relate with us, the way they battle back and forth with one another.

“Their battles affect these people who are sleeping under bridges or in tents or in abandoned dwellings in this city today.”

Coming up on Friday is what Blackwell calls a “one-stop” shopping opportunity for area homeless at the Albany Civic Center. The 2nd annual Project Connect will offer a wide array of services from organizations including the Veterans Administration, Albany Primary Health Care and the Samaritan Clinic, Blackwell said.

“The VA has brought a tremendous surplus of boots, blankets, sleeping bags, socks and underwear,” Blackwell said, “There will be hot meals, and the opportunity to learn the application process for Social Security, which they’ve never been able to do.”