Not many people noticed the figures moving furtively into and out of the campsite. Which was odd because tents and tarps had been set up in plain sight a scant few yards from Interstate 40.

For weeks, months really, the small camp sat on a little rise, sheltered somewhat by a thick canopy of trees and the dip of a natural berm.

Cars and trucks flew by at all hours, day and night, yet the bright orange tent and blue tarp — unnatural colors in winter — stuck out.

And few noticed.

“I didn’t even know they were there,” said Michelle Brown, a manager at Conn’s Electronics on Hanes Mall Boulevard near a barely perceptible footpath that led into the wooded site. “Until the man came in one day and told me my (car) trunk was open. That was weird.”

Invisible, ignored and mostly forgotten, the homeless are particularly vulnerable to all sorts of hazards.

And the biggest threat of all, the rampant COVID-19, encroaches unseen and unchecked while warming weather pushes more of them outdoors.

Other, more pressing concerns

The city’s shelters and soup kitchens, particularly during the lean winter months, does yeoman’s work caring for — and about — several hundred chronically homeless.

Samartian’s Ministries, City with Dwellings, the Bethesda Center, churches and any number of concerned volunteers give countless hours making sure basic needs — food, shelter, medicine and old-fashioned human contact — are met.

Seasonal overflow shelters have (or soon will) close for the spring and summer. And the COVID-19 scourge complicates matters.

Even if the danger hasn’t registered.

“The homeless I speak to don’t even mention it,” said Al Burchett, the coordinator of an outreach group called Habit Missions Ministry, the other day while on a Walmart run to stock up on supplies.

“Their bigger concern is, ‘Everything is closed and we can’t get things,’” he said. “There’s no place to charge their phones, which is very important.”

For many, it’s the only connection to worried families or the larger world beyond their reach or ability to access. Mental illness, substance abuse or both can exacerbate even the simplest of tasks.

Burchett, through his ministry, tries to make once a week rounds to places homeless people live outside. Wooded camps, under bridges and railroad tracks, wherever fate has placed them.

He and other volunteers try to supply durable goods — tents, sleeping bags and blankets — as well as some food and basic toiletries.

Burchett keeps the locations of his regular visits private as he does not want to invite outside harassment to people just trying to survive.

Some locations you’d never suspect; others, such as the former camp off Hanes Mall and I-40 or an abandoned site nearby right off U.S. 421, are in plain sight.

“We serve on a regular basis 30 to 35 people,” he said. “Sometimes you see somebody once and never again.”

Hazards of transiency

The camp near Conn’s was dismantled a few weeks ago.

Property owners, or someone acting on their behalf, hauled a recliner and other items out of the trees. A few clothes, food containers and other debris were left behind and a small “No Trespassing” sign went up.

“The woman came inside and said she felt like she was going to throw up,” Brown said of a recent morning.

An ambulance was summoned, and during a subsequent conversation, the woman “said she lived ‘Over there,’” Brown said. “I thought she meant apartments.”

Some time after that — it’s not clear exactly when or at whose request — the tents (and their occupants) moved on.

“It could have been the store if it was on private property or an officer might have decided to take action on their own,” said Lt. Jose Gomez of the Winston-Salem Police Department. “It might not even have generated a report as there was no crime and no arrest.”

Sadly, it’s just the nature of a transient lifestyle. Out of sight, even when in plain view.

Another (apparently) abandoned campsite less than 1/2-mile away across several lanes of convergent highway traffic illustrates the health challenges for the homeless and those who try and care for them.

Tents were set up nearly on top of one another — certainly closer than recommended for safe social-distancing. Beer cans, plastic bottles and discarded fast food containers sat in piles.

A broken bicycle and a broken suitcase were tossed into the perimeter. It’s troubling that people lived that way just steps away from a busy highway and commercial centers.

Warnings about self-isolation, increased personal hygiene, hand washing and the physical signs of COVID-19, likely will fall unheeded and unheard. But it won’t be for a lack of trying.

“Our goal is to build through trust and friendships,” Burchett said. “It’s not about supplies.”

ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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