On Saturday night, advocates shared a powerful snapshot of the homeless population in Middlesex County as a group of 75 people gathered at in Middletown for the Homelessness Awareness Discussion and Sleep-Out.
For the third straight year, members of local church groups learned about the plight of the areas homeless before setting out to raise awareness by spending the night in the January cold.
"I really wasn't aware that there was a homeless population literally living in the woods, in their cars or in abandoned buildings," said Mackenzie Tyson, an East Haddam native who now serves as program manager at Eddy Shelter in Middletown.
For the past decade, Tyson has worked closely with the county's homeless which numbered 249 in 2011, according to figures. The number increased 15 percent last year and included 52 children.
"We have a chance to really do something about that, with preventative services, with affordable housing, with supportive housing ... school programs, community activities like this," said Tyson who called working with the homeless the "best education" she's ever received.
The event was sponsored by the Middlesex County Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, which launched End in Ten in 2008, a collaborative effort to combat the causes — not the symptoms — of homelessness.
"Not a lot of people see a problem and get up and do something about it but you're here to do something about it," said Middletown Mayor Dan Drew.
As part of the evening's activities, a 5-member panel spoke explicitly about their experiences with homelessness while answering questions from the group.
"I have a 24-year-old daughter. She just graduated from college. I'm too proud to ask for help," said Greg, a 54-year-old construction worker who said he was forced to live on the streets for a couple of weeks after being incarcerated.
Another member of the panel, Ernie, a father of six children, told the group he became homeless as a result of his addiction to drugs and alcohol.
"Today I'm trying to learn how to tell the truth," the former New Haven resident said. He received applause from the group after sharing that he'd been drug-free for 98 days and would no longer be homeless as of Tuesday.
"Today, I'm grateful to be here," he said.
Lydia Brewster, assistant director for community services at St. Vincent De Paul Place in Middletown, moderated the panel. A longtime homeless advocate, Brewster offered the group another perspective when she cautioned them to see past Hollywood's depiction of the homeless.
"They're some of the most resourceful people I've ever known," she said. "If Armeggeddon comes, I want to be with them."
The final question of the night was posed to the panel. They were asked what the public could do to help the homeless.
"The communities have it pretty well covered. It's up to the individual to make it work," said Greg.