Homelessness Task Force volunteers sign up for subcommittees -- Who are they?

Sam Buice of Living Water Ministries (from left), Merlene Justice of Reach Ministries and Salvation Army Lead Caseworker Cathy Hart sign up for various subcommittees of the Homelessness Task Force Sept. 26 at The Well at West Rome Baptist Church.

More than one of them hit rock bottom as an addict and experienced homelessness somewhere along the line in their lives.

Another simply grew up around impoverished people and has been serving them from a young age. And one feels divine intervention compelled him to minister to and help those in need.

No matter the personal story, they have one thing in common: They all feel a calling to get to know and help Rome’s homeless humans. And they all put their names on more than one tiny notepad, each consisting of a list of people willing to work on a certain subcommittee of the Homelessness Task Force.

They are Rome residents Claudia Hamilton, Cathy Hart, Sam Buice, Merlene Justice and Daniel Eason and they agreed to share their stories and their hopes. They are not the only ones who signed up to serve on the Task Force’s subcommittees, but are a good representation of the sorts of souls working to help serve and protect those without a home.

Claudia Hamilton

Claudia Hamilton, founder and executive director of Living Proof Recovery and Next Door, knows first-hand how personal trauma can lead to addiction and homelessness.

“When I was growing up, no one knew how to deal with trauma,” said Hamilton, who was first sexually abused by a physician at a young age and later taken advantage of by a high school teacher. “Addiction is usually the result of a lot of trauma that was never dealt with.”

What started as typical recreational use of marijuana in middle school quickly advanced to the abuse of substances.

“I couldn’t figure out how to use or drink casually,” Hamilton said. “By the time I graduated from high school, I was in full-blown active drug use with cocaine, pills, and drinking to change the way I felt inside.”

She even had a son while still addicted and lost him to foster care for four years. It took until she reached 28 and finally realized she needed to get help and put her life back together that she began her life-long quest of recovery.

“Lives do get changed,” she said, adding she not only has her first born, but two others born after she’d kicked her addictions through recovery. “It takes a community to change just one person sometimes. If we could just focus on one person at a time, there would be a ripple effect where every story connects to another. If you can change your story, you can connect to the person next to you and the next and the next.”

She said through her work with her organization Next Door, she’s able to help women transition from jail to their own homes through a halfway house, of sorts. She said some incarcerated intentionally reoffend inside prison by getting in a fight in order to stay where there’s “three hots and a cot” because they have nowhere else to go.

She said one woman who was a sex worker in one of the hotels on Second Avenue went into recovery and is now a homeowner thanks to Hamilton and many others in the community who believed in second chances.

She said others intentionally reoffend inside prison in order to stay where there’s “three hots and a cot” because they have nowhere else to go.

And that’s why she joined the Homelessness Task Force from its beginning in early September and was the first person to sign up for the “Homelessness & Mental Illness/Addition” and the “Short-Term Homelessness” subcommittees after the second Task Force meeting Sept. 26.

“I would have liked to have signed up for a group to rename the Task Force,” she said with a laugh. “’Task Force’ makes it sound like you’re in trouble.”

She said she likes the idea of a diversion-like day center with resources for the homeless — even if they never want to live in a traditional home. She said others intentionally reoffend inside prison in order to stay where there’s “three hots and a cot” because they have nowhere else to go.

“Some people really enjoy living outside, but they still need access to basic things like phones, computers, somewhere they can get an ID and maybe even a job,” she said, adding it is vital the Task Force find at least one homeless representative to attend the meetings. “We are never going to be successful if we can’t understand who they are and what they need.”

Cathy Hart

Salvation Army’s lead case worker Cathy Hart also understands from personal experience how easily someone can slip into addiction and eventually become homeless.

When she was 14 and 15, she became addicted to opiates, she said. And although she was able to become clean for awhile after hospitalizations, she learned being in a facility with aging veterans was not the best route for her as a teen.

“There were no drug rehab facilities for teens in Sarasota, so you end up learning more about drugs and dealing from the adults who are in there with you,” said Hart, adding she preferred alcohol and cocaine. “Sometime in college I completely went over the edge and it lasted for years and years until I finally hit bottom.”

Now celebrating sobriety for the 21st year, Hart’s Salvation Army career started as a shelter manager at the Salvation Army in Sarasota after running into an employee of the national nonprofit organization at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting she once shared a halfway house with.

“That was my heart, my experience,” she said. “I knew I was planted there for a reason.”

She said the homeless population in Rome is much smaller than those in larger cities where she’s worked, but she believes even one struggling soul is too many.

“I really like street ministry,” said the mother of two whose daughter also became a drug addict. “The down and dirtier the better for me. I had to get to a point of desperation, too, and so I understand that.”

Hart also wants to see a homeless person on the Task Force.

“I don’t want to sit there and make decisions without input from them,” said Hart, who signed up for all four subcommittees, which include “Long-Term Homelessness” and “Affordable Housing.” “I want to learn these homeless neighbors’ names and put a name to a face. They are residents just like the rest of us. They’re just residents without a residence.”

Sam Buice

Sam Buice, a pastor with Living Water Ministries who shares his love of the Lord with the homeless at various feeding sites and inside Floyd County Jail, said he grew up in Antioch Baptist Church in Rome while his father was a deacon there.

“I tell people I moved three times, but am still on the same road,” said Buice, a former electrician who lives on Little Texas Valley Road. “I knew the Lord when I was eight years old and knew right away I was meant to serve him.”

What he didn’t know when he grew older was that his missionary trips to a Native American reservation in New Mexico and later in Arizona during his time off from electrical jobs would ultimately lead him back to Rome.

He said it took him a few years to realize Rome was where he belonged from the start after being invited to a preaching session at Reach Ministries.

“The thing I drove 1,500 miles to do, I could do right here in Rome,” said Buice, whose Japanese wife works as a translator at the Honda facility in Rockmart. “The heart the Lord has put in me is to reach out to those less fortunate. Just like it says in Psalms 41, verse 1: ‘How blessed is he who considers the helpless. The Lord will deliver him in the day of trouble.’ “

Buice said he knows there will always be homeless people in Rome, but he hopes the Task Force will be able to help more than ever before.

“I believe in treating people the way you would want to be treated,” said Buice, who has been speaking up at public meetings against the imposition of the proposed “urban camping” and “aggressive panhandling” ordinances being considered by the City Commission because he fears what will become of people who are confronted by police. “I know the police have a job to do and it’s not easy. I believe there will always be people who slip through the cracks, but we can help make those cracks tighter.”

Merlene Justice

Merlene Justice was in the middle of a meth lab when she was “set free.”

“My testimony is that God delivered me from a life of drugs,” said Justice, a former IV drug user who founded Reach Ministries with her daughter in 2013. Her daughter also had been an addict.

Now 53, she attributes her fall from grace to being raped in 2002. This led to her attempt to erase that memory through drugs, which led to her homelessness over a six-year period.

“I lived in my car,” she said of her Saturn. “I’d just pull over somewhere. It could be under an overpass, in a park, anywhere.”

She also spent nearly three years prison for drug possession.

“I’ve been through a lot, but I’m a perfect example of how God breaks chains,” she said.

Reach Ministries helps house the homeless through Rome’s Housing Authority and landlords like Charlie Ford, finding homes for about 12 people per year.

“That’s not a great number, but at least we can help with furniture and work with agencies that help with everything else,” she said, adding they also help people find jobs. “We’re walking through life with them. We’re making sure they’re not getting evicted.”

Reach also helps feed the hungry with the help of churches on Tuesdays and Saturdays, runs a drug recovery program and visits inmates in jail. They provide meals for about 80 people every Tuesday at 3 p.m. at South Broad Baptist Church, she said.

As for the Homelessness Task Force, she said she hopes she will see more action and less talk.

“I’ve been to a lot of meetings. I don’t really care for the meetings,” she said. “I want to see something done. But I’m excited. I’m hopeful we can get something done and move forward, working in unity.”

Daniel Eason

Daniel Eason, who like Hart signed up for all four Task Force subcommittees, has no complaints about how he was raised and never experienced any sort of trauma — other than being the “middle child.”

In fact, he credits his upbringing around the less fortunate to his desire today keep walking the talk.

“We were just a middle class family in the suburbs,” the 54-year-old Navy brat said, adding he did live in Morocco and Rhode Island before his family moved to Forest Park south of Atlanta when he was 4. “We were active in our church when I was growing up, which included working at community kitchens and homeless shelters when I was 14. I started doing that on my own when I turned 18 and was working for Delta Airlines.”

His exposure to those living in poverty began much earlier, however, when he mother worked as a teacher at Carver High in Atlanta. Most of her students came from “Carver Homes,” a housing project with mostly minority families.

“We just met people and learned they were just people and not anything to be afraid of,” the father of three said. “They made my life better in terms of seeing people as people.”

Eason said he enjoys participating in the afternoon feedings at South Rome Baptist, sometimes even bringing his own dish.

What he loves the most, he said, is just talking to those gathered there.

“I usually learn a lot by talking to the people there,” he said. “Tuesday I spoke with a Vietnam veteran in his mid-60s who doesn’t have a place to live. But he’s witty. He likes to talk about theology and politics. I’ve known him for a couple of years now.”

His heart sinks when he sees entire families come in for meals.

“Two weeks ago we had somewhere close to 10 children at the feeding,” he said. “There were some small children. They weren’t all homeless, just hungry. It was toward the end of the month when funds were low.”

Eason said he found out that 12% of Rome’s residents living in poverty are actually employed and that Rome has a poverty rate of 24.5%, which is quite a bit higher than the national average.

He said he’s hoping the Task Force can not only help the homeless, but educate others that they shouldn’t be feared.

“Most of the homeless are not causing problems,” he said. “They aren’t destroying restrooms or leaving a mess in parks. That’s mostly just young people or other adults behaving badly.”

He said he would hate to see anyone arrested who was just trying to survive out there and not bothering anyone.

“Some people you encounter on the streets are extremely bright,” he said. “When I’m around the abject poor, I also notice they are very trusting of each other and and rely on one another. They are more honest and are less prone to steal from one another. They have qualities we’d all be better off having as a larger society.”

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