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Helping homeless begins by learning about the people

Lawton really needs to do something about our homeless situation.

This isn't going to be a column where I tell you a bunch of statistics. The truth is I don't know all the stats. What I do know are some of the people.

Like the man who's living in a metal building not far from where I work.

I've talked to him many times over the years, and I'd been on the lookout for him because I had a coat and blanket for him. I finally saw him on Christmas Day, when he was headed to the store to buy provisions. He asked me for a ride and I said yes, and when he got in the car I could tell he hadn't bathed in some time.

I waited in the parking lot while he shopped, then I drove him "home." When I asked where he'd been lately, he said he'd been trapped inside the building where he lives  when the big ice storm hit right before Christmas, the ice froze over the door and he couldn't get out for several days.

There wasn't much else to talk about, but I told him Merry Christmas, and he told me Merry Christmas. He offered me gas money and I said no. I dropped him off and gave him the coat and blanket, and he was glad to get them. Yesterday I saw him walking and he was wearing his new coat, a nice heavy one, with a hood.

It was 20 degrees yesterday.

Then there's the man whom I don't know, the last one to walk into the church when we fed on Christmas Eve. We had new clothes for him, but what he needed more than anything was a bath.

Or the guy who was digging through the dumpster by the library, at dusk on the night before Thanksgiving. He said the shelters were full and he was just passing through. He was going to sleep on the streets that night, then catch a bus the next day to Oklahoma City, where he hoped he might find a bed. I'd just come from the grocery store and gave him a sandwich and a banana, better than what he might have found in the dumpster.

And a coat. That was when I was overrun with coats, thanks to the people in this community who donated generously.

On Sunday "60 Minutes" did a report on a program called the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a program that claims it's cheaper to provide immediate housing for the highest at-risk homeless than to walk past them on the street and do nothing. These are people who have serious health issues and have regular, costly visits to the emergency room.

Maybe Lawton needs to adopt some of these practices. This city has several schools and city buildings that are empty and unused; perhaps we could use one or more of those to get people off the street. Here in Lawton, the homeless have already been identified by the count the Lawton Housing Authority does every year. They just did a count two weeks ago.

And don't forget, many of our homeless are veterans.

These aren't just homeless people. They are our neighbors. What is it the Bible says about our neighbors?

There's always talk about how we need to have more programs for our youth to help in gang prevention. Why couldn't the youth volunteer to help with the homeless? Or, if needed, troubled youth be required to do community service to help the homeless?

The difference between us and them is we have shelter from the elements and a support system in place in our lives. But the biggest difference is that we have hope and they do not.

My hope is that we step up and quit ignoring this crisis.

The Lawton Constitution

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