- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - In the brush not far off of South Broadway there is a cluster of tents and makeshift shelters that is practically invisible to passersby.

Hundreds of cars roll past the encampment every day without noticing it, but volunteers with the Compassionate Caravan make a point to stop there regularly and check on the people who call it home.

“Hello?” volunteer Thomas Caudill shouted Tuesday night as he swept a flashlight beam over the collection of tarps, chairs and windows. “It’s Brother Thomas, just checking to make sure you’re all right.”

The people living there know Caudill. In his 14 years working with Lexington’s homeless population through the Catholic Action Center and the Community Inn, he’s forged relationships with many people living on the streets.

The Compassionate Caravan is a group of volunteers who investigate after their hotline, or “cold line” as they call it, gets tips about people living outside in the winter. The volunteers also have a set group of people and camps they check on regularly, Caudill said.

No one was in the camp off of South Broadway on Tuesday. One of the makeshift shelters, which included a roof of wood planks and a floor of mismatched tiles, had been wrecked.

Someone had raided it, Caudill said. This is one of the reasons some people living on the streets in Lexington refuse to go to the shelter.

“This is their whole life,” Caudill said, stepping over blankets, tarps and wood. “It probably took over a year to get all this, but it takes less than 30 minutes to tear it down.”

Throughout Tuesday night, Caudill transported dozens of people to places safe and warm.

Ginny Ramsey, co-director of the Catholic Action Center and Community Inn, said the Compassionate Caravan has been running since 2014, but the “cold line” went live Jan. 10. Since then, more than 1,200 reports have been called in.

“It’s crazy how caring this city is,” Caudill said. “If people know there’s a need, they’ll fill it.”

The volunteers with Compassionate Caravan, the Catholic Action Center and the Community Inn were bracing themselves for the snow forecast for this week.

“Snow changes everything,” Caudill said. “Now they’re going to be wet and cold.”

Donations of cold weather gear are always appreciated, Ramsey said. But if the snow comes, the shelters will need food, cleaning supplies and gas money.

Paper cups and plates, cleaning supplies and food donations will help the shelters get through the weekend, which Ramsey predicts will bring many people to the shelters.

She said it can be easy for some to forget that people living on the streets are just people.

“They could be your brother or your sister; this isn’t the boogeyman that we’re picking up,” Ramsey said. “It creates a different vision of the people who call the streets their home when you actually see them.”

As Caudill’s van rolled down New Circle Road on Tuesday night, it passed a woman walking quickly with her hands deep in her pockets and her head bowed against the cold.

When asked if she wanted a ride, she replied, “Oh God, yes.”

The woman said she’d been living on the streets for several weeks. She’d come to Lexington with her boyfriend, but when he started using drugs she ran.

After taking the woman where she was headed, Caudill drove to a bridge over the railroad tracks on the north side of town. He and another volunteer went over a guardrail and climbed down a steep embankment that led under the bridge.

About five women live in the tent there, and though they never accept a ride to the shelter, the caravan always checks on them and brings them supplies, Caudill said.

Tuesday night, they weren’t in the tent. Caudill said he hoped they’d come back to their tent, which is full of blankets, or that they had gone to a shelter.

“If they don’t get in somewhere, there’s that chance they won’t make it,” Caudill said.

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