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story.lead_photo.caption Bonny Gregory, left, executive director of Jacob’s Place homeless mission in Searcy, stands with Phyllis Worley, board president. The mission will sponsor Sleep Out Searcy, an overnight fundraising event, beginning at 9 p.m. Nov. 9 in the Main Street Searcy parking lot downtown. More information is available at sleepoutsearcy.com. - Photo by Mark Buffalo

— Bonny Gregory moved to Searcy from the Washington, D.C., area, and she said there’s something those cities have in common: homelessness.

Gregory took over in July as executive director of Jacob’s Place, a homeless mission in Searcy.

“It’s not just a big-city problem in New York City, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles. We do have a homeless problem,” Gregory said. “Small towns have homelessness just as much as your major metropolitan areas.”

Jacob’s Place will sponsor Sleep Out Searcy, from 9 p.m. Nov. 9 to 5 a.m. Nov. 10, in the Main Street Searcy parking lot to raise awareness of the issue and money for the program.

“White County has a higher population than other counties in the state — it’s the fifth highest in the state, and our poverty line is also a couple of points higher … about 18 percent beneath the poverty line. The state average is about 15, 16 percent,” she said. Gregory cited statistics from Aspire Arkansas, a project of the Arkansas Community Foundation.

It’s the first time for the Sleep Out Searcy event, Gregory said.

“We were looking for different things to do in November, December. … I saw it was gong to be the National Week of Homelessness and Hunger Awareness, kicking off Nov. 10. We’re doing this Nov. 9 … to raise awareness and, hopefully, keep the momentum going that week,” she said.

“We are going to have different representatives from a couple of other organizations, including Mission Machine, another homeless resource here in Searcy. They provide immediate assistance to people on the streets, while Jacob’s Place is a program,” she said.

Jacob’s Place, which will observe its 10th anniversary in March, empowers the homeless, she said, by providing financial, spiritual, emotional and job counseling while they receive shelter. Jacob’s Place, which has room for up to three families, is an area agency of the United Way of White County.

“It was really founded with families in mind and children not knowing where they’ll be sleeping. They might be on their aunt’s, their cousin’s, their grandparents’ couch. They’ve never had their own bed, never had a backyard to play in,” she said.

At Jacob’s Place, “they have a swing set and a kitchen where they can get cereal, and they can tuck into a sheet and a real comforter at nighttime, things we take for granted that it’s a reality for our community’s children, [but] they don’t necessarily know where they’re going to sleep at night.”

A variety of activities will be going on at Sleep Out Searcy, she said, including “video streaming, documentaries playing … leaders in the community presenting.”

“There will be an arts and crafts table for [participants’] creative side, to get their creative juices flowing,” Gregory said, adding that the artwork will be displayed at a date to be determined.

Before they leave, breakfast and coffee will be provided.

Participants are asked to give a minimum $25 donation.

“We would like to see people raise at least $25 each to participate, which gets them access to the event, including soup, coffee, programs, interaction with community leaders and more,” Gregory said.

Participants will be able to “rent” a newsleeping bag for $15 for the night from Mission Machine Inc., which will then be laundered and donated to the mission to distribute to homeless individuals.

Joshua Stewart, president of the Mission Machine Inc. board, said the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization is “aimed at serving Searcy and the surrounding areas for people who just don’t have shelter and for immediate shelter.”

Stewart said another board member allows homeless individuals to set up tents on his private property outside the Searcy city limits. The property has had as many as eight tents, but “four, five, six is most common,” Stewart said.

Each person’s situation is different, he said, so the length of stays varies.

“If they are trying — if they are trying – I’d say they can stay there indefinitely,” he said. Stewart said in the three years he’s been associated with Mission Machine Inc., “we’ve only had three of your stereotypical do-nothing homeless people. That’s just uncommon.”

Stewart said the event isn’t a fundraiser for Mission Machine Inc.

“We’re an invited participant. We’re going to come out and be there because we’re certainly doing related work. … We’re not benefiting from the overall fundraising; it’ll be pretty good if at 1 o’clock in the morning they’re suffering and want to rent a sleeping bag.

“We’ll have stock on scene in our van of winter-weight sleeping bags that they can pay $15 to ‘rent,’ take them and use them, and … then we will ask for them back. We’ll launder them and use them. That’s a commodity we’ve never had many of,” he said.

Stewart said he bought a few sleeping bags, not knowing how many people will participate or want one.

Gregory said that as a first-time event, it’s hard to predict how many people will show up.

“I think if we got 100 participants, we’d be really happy,” she said.

Stewart said Mission Machine Inc. “is going to invite the people we serve to come hang out with us, … a social thing to put people on the same level. In general, … it’s just awareness for us, just another opportunity to interact with the community. This is not any effort to mimic or better understand homelessness; it’s not a way to humble yourself,” he said.

Gregory said people can donate even if they don’t want to participate in the sleep out. The website is sleepoutsearcy.com.

“Our goal is to raise awareness, and what we’re trying to do is set up some interactive community events that raise awareness with shared experiences,”

she said.

“It’s one of those things that Searcy is growing — we’re getting an Ulta, getting a Hobby Lobby and T.J. Maxx, and it’s wonderful we’re getting all these things — but as the city grows, other sections of our population grow, as well,” including the homeless population, she said.

Gregory’s goal is to make Sleep Out Searcy an annual event.

“I would love to; I think this could be the start of something good,” she said. “We will do the best we can, learn from it and grow.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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