PEKIN, Ill. (WMBD) — The Salvation Army in Pekin is holding an inaugural event to recognize a growing issue in the community.

Major Heath Sells, the tri-county coordinator for the Salvation Army, said homelessness is more prevalent now than ever in Tazewell County.

“We have friends and neighbors right here in Pekin and Tazewell County who are facing significant challenges of unaffordable housing, substance abuse, lack of treatment, and unemployment, and they find themselves homeless,” Sells said.

He said the organization wants to shed light on how big of a problem it is in the area and what resources are available.

This led to the creation of “Homeless Not Helpless,” a tent event, at Mineral Springs Park, to give community members the chance to put themselves in the shoes of those in need.

More than a dozen people came out to the park Friday night, registered, and volunteered to sleep overnight outside in tents, cots, and sleeping bags.

“They’re going to experience what it is to not have running water or indoor plumbing and all of the luxuries that we take for granted,” Sells said.

He said the poverty rate in Tazewell County is just over 8.5%, and he hopes those participating can learn from the experience of not having a roof over their heads.

“We want them to recognize this is our neighbors in need right here in Tazewell County, it’s not someone else’s problem and the Salvation Army stands committed with other agency partners to meet that and address that need,” Sells said.

Cathy Barnard is one of those who came out Friday night to participate. She said homelessness is not a problem that can be solved by sitting at home.

“You have to make the message and say something with what you do,” Barnard said. “If you sit at home and say ‘I feel badly about them being homeless’, that doesn’t mean a thing. Get out and put yourself where the talk is.”

Sells said the Salvation Army’s Harold J. Rust Transitional Center provided 1,643 nights of shelter, served 4,929 meals, and moved 80% of those in their program to permanent/affordable housing last year.

He said he hopes the event will grow next year, and he wants the community to go to their website to help support the center.