Volunteers around Lane County participated Thursday in the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) Homeless Count coordinated by Lane County Human Services. Wielding clipboards, free bus passes and snacks, local volunteers solicited surveys from people experiencing homelessness in and around Cottage Grove.
Required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to be done at least once every two years, the count is conducted by Lane County Human Services annually.
The count is intended to provide a “snapshot” of the degree of homelessness in targeted areas. The data is used to measure progress and demonstrate the extent of need for funding and services in each community.
“Each area gets allocated a percentage of the total money based on their number of homeless in this count,” said Cottage Grove City Councilor Mike Fleck. “This is why it’s critical to make sure you’re counting everybody.”
Fleck volunteered this year to coordinate surveys in the Cottage Grove area, including in the Creswell and Lowell areas.
“Key pieces they’re looking at are number of times homeless, the amount of time homeless … and demographic information,” he said. “It’s actually a pretty painless survey.”
All volunteers are required to receive training prior to the count. For security, volunteers work in teams of two or three, trained to always stay within line of sight of each other and are restricted from entering structures or any non-public property.
Getting accurate information is important to the mission; if enough people meet the criteria of “chronically homeless,” for instance, the kinds of programs made available in an area can change.
The PIT count surveys are part of the Continuum of Care, a HUD program dedicated to ending homelessness by easing the burden on individuals or families in need of housing and promoting self-sufficiency.
While self-sufficiency is a desirable goal, many in the community agree that shelter services are among the greatest of the city’s immediate needs.
Allan Katz, who volunteered at the Thursday homeless count, is involved in several local programs addressing the concerns of disadvantaged individuals including St. Vincent de Paul’s food bank and Beds for Freezing Nights.
“I would put emphasis on indoor shelter,” Katz said. “A shelter is not a tent outside as far as I’m concerned.”
A need to address the kinds of shelters offered for those who experience homelessness is a point echoed by recent research in Lane County.
Technical Assistance Collaborative (TAC), a nonprofit out of Boston, Mass. focusing on human services, health care, homelessness and affordable housing, released a Public Shelter Feasibility Study and Homeless Service System Analysis for Lane County last October. The study pointed out that the issue requires much broader and deeper attention.
“While emergency shelter plays a crucial role in addressing a person’s immediate housing crisis needs,” the report stated, “it is important to note that shelter alone cannot be a community’s singular strategy to ending homelessness.”
The feasibility study goes on to suggest a need for system-wide coordination among housing and services.
Fleck is hopeful PIT counts will highlight the need for such transitions.
“I think we’re going to see some big changes,” said Fleck. “Right now we receive certain types of housing but don’t receive others and the report was suggesting that those be broader and more interconnected.
“I’m kind of excited to see how this may potentially change all of the aspects if we can afford it.”
Fleck cited transitional housing and rapid-rehousing as particular needs in Cottage Grove.
“Most of the people who apply for housing assistance don’t receive it,” said Fleck. “Because we just don’t have the funds or they don’t qualify.”
Last year, volunteers of the PIT count reported 1,642 people experiencing homelessness in Lane County, up from 1,529 the previous year. Indications are that this year will see another increase.
The Cottage Grove count was conducted between 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, requiring survey participants to claim they spent the previous night outdoors in order to be counted.
Because the numbers reflect only a single given night in the year, a need for thoroughness becomes quickly evident.
From a coordination perspective, Fleck found it uncharted territory.
“It’s a new process with the county taking over the volunteerism and so I think it went well overall, but I think there are some things that could improve,” he said. “You know, minor organizational stuff.”
Linda Bravo, a community service worker from Eugene, volunteered to help organize the Cottage Grove event. “I think it would be helpful to have longer hours next time,” she said.
Of the more than 30 people who were anticipated as needed for the Cottage Grove area count, a total of 13 showed up.
Among them was Karen Munsell, who had hoped to meet face-to-face more of the kinds of individuals she’s accustomed to helping in her food drive volunteering.
Her three-hour search resulted in a single survey participant.
Munsell was hopeful the process would yield “more accurate services offered to homeless and at-risk people in this community,” she said.
Other teams from the morning’s count had more luck finding participants. Volunteers from Creswell reported around 15 recorded surveys in their count.
Regardless of numbers, Katz found the experience rewarding.
“If you’re an advocate, it’s really important that you’re knowledgeable about what you’re advocating,” he said. “So if I’m advocating for people who are unhoused, I should be out there in the trenches knowing what it is they’re facing and trying to get as much information as I can.”
Lane County is to submit the final PIT count data to HUD this April.