Mrs. Sulser was among a group of four, escorted by a Tyler police officer, to a known homeless camp in the woods where Margaret stayed.
A total of 88 volunteers surveyed the homeless population in Tyler as part of the 2013 Point in Time Homeless Survey and Count. Eighteen groups scoured places where the homeless generally congregate, in The Salvation Army, soup kitchens, Gateway to Hope, the East Texas Crisis Center and known camps.
The voluntary survey consisted of 27 questions designed to gauge how current services are being used, potential gaps that need to be covered and how to develop a long-term plan for addressing homelessness in Tyler and Smith County, said Christina Fulsom, a representative for the East Texas Human Needs Network, a coalition of representatives from many organizations to meet the needs of the homeless population.
The numbers will be used to help any entity that works with the homeless to receive grants, Ms. Fulsom said.
Questions were asked about migration habits, frequency of homelessness, what services they need or have received, their veteran status, education level and job status.
Mrs. Sulser said she has gotten fairly close with Margaret through her volunteer work and wanted to be the one to get her answers to the survey. Mrs. Sulser said she has volunteered with organizations that help the homeless for the past five years, spending the past three volunteering with Hiway 80 Rescue Mission.
“For me it’s more forming a relationship with them …” she said. “It makes sense to help those who can’t help themselves.”
Each Monday, Mrs. Sulser works with a Hiway 80 program called Art Reach. She said the program involves Bible study, pizza and a two-hour art class. Margaret has been a regular to the class.
“She loves it, and she is very talented,” she said, adding Margaret can paint and draw and is fond of flowers and bright colors. “We sell their art to raise money to buy supplies because the supplies kind of add up.”
Margaret is a very private person who rarely talks. Mrs. Sulser said she was difficult to get close to. But one day after class, she offered to take Margaret home, and dropped her off near the overpass, but said she didn’t realize how deep in the woods the camp was.
Mrs. Sulser said she didn’t learn anything new about Margaret from the anonymous survey, but said it was interesting to see her home.
“She’s always upbeat about her environment, as so it’s very interesting to see,” Mrs. Sulser said. “She is very artistic. It was fun to see her bows and ribbons and how colorful her spot was. She had all those red bows and colors.”
In the woods, several camps are joined by cleared pathways. The center camp is inhabited by 53-year-old Jody and two other men. Their camp has a garden, where Jody said they grow food in the summer as well as ornamental plants. There is a kitchen with hooks keeping pots and pans off the ground and a fire pit where meals are cooked. Jody, who has lived in the area for three years, said they even made a make-shift oven for heating water.
Inhabitants shower by heating water in the oven and putting it into large plastic bottles — the kind used to keep water in refrigerators — and placing them on a high board placed between two trees. Tarps provide privacy and the gravity of water falling allows them to get clean. Jody said three gallons of water is generally enough to take a shower with, but water has to be brought into the camp by hand 9 gallons at a time.
Jody said although Margaret doesn’t stay at his camp, they let her cook meals on their fire.
Ms. Fulsom said volunteers in 205 counties in Texas surveyed the homeless Thursday.
“We are trying not to count the same person twice,” she said. “We can take a snapshot, so we don’t take a picture of the same person twice.”
Ms. Fulsom said the Smith County volunteers collected 145 surveys, counting 247 homeless altogether, including 52 children. As of Thursday evening, she said a few more surveys would pour in.
The warm weather also affected counting numbers, Ms. Fulsom said. When the weather gets colder, more turn to shelters and are easier to count.
For the first time this year, volunteers checked eight communities in addition to Tyler: Arp, Overton, Bullard, New Chapel Hill, Noonday, Troup, Whitehouse and Winona.
Homeless were found in two of the communities, with the most in Whitehouse and one in Noonday, she said.
“It’s the first time we have been in those communities looking, and we didn’t scout it out the night before,” she said. “I think we will be better prepared next year to go to those communities.”