AKRON, Ohio - His faith and love for those in need prompted Bruce Oberlin years ago to trek off the beaten paths of Akron into deep wooded areas to reach out to the homeless. Each year, Oberlin leads a team to the known areas in the city where the homeless call home for the annual Point-In-Time Count.
It's a humbling night, walking the streets and through the dark woods, looking for people there who call these places home. Last year, groups found small, but elaborate tent cities, feral cat colonies and "homes" beyond deplorable.
This year, our team of four found and reached out to about 40 homeless men and women, asking a few questions for government purposes, without giving away their "home" spot, providing the homeless with blankets, food, bus passes, Subway and McDonald's cards.
The Point-In-Time Count not only helps cities secure funding, it also helps measure a city's progress to end homelessness.
With us Tuesday night was Chester, a man who once lived on the streets. Chester is just one success story of going from the bottom to the top.
"I don't want to go back," he said. "I don't want to get in no trouble."
Thanks to the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, Chester has a two bed, two bath home, a steady job and three female cocker spaniel dogs that keep him company.
"Every night, I still go back and walk the tracks," Chester said. Those "tracks" were his home for many hard years.
Chester guided us to spots where he knows the less fortunate live: under bridges, in bushes, in parking decks, deep in the woods, on the street, tucked in church entryways. A secret whistle lets the homeless who are hiding know it's safe to come out. How they live is remarkable.
These amazing people have only the clothes on their backs, a water jug and an old blanket or two, if that. It's fascinating how they survive, how they navigate the streets and how so many are filled with faith.
One homeless man, Richard, hugged us, recited John 3:16 and then prayed with us. Another group of roughly 10 homeless men praised Jesus in their tough circumstances while trying to cover themselves from the falling rain.
"We're a street family. We come together like this because we're brothers. We stick together."
Others were more frustrated by their situation.
"You don't get much sleep out here," Michael said. "Some of us aren't from this city or state. Some of us don't have anybody out here to depend on or relate to. We're out here by ourselves."
The number of homeless in Akron has increased over the past few years. But Sue Pierson, vice-president at Info Line, isn't sure if it's because the number of homeless are growing, or if volunteers are getting better at finding them through the Point-In-Time Count.
What it boils down to is this -- these people are just like you and me. And we've all had our moments.