Mecklenburg County’s annual ‘street homeless’ count expanded

msprice@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 27, 2014 

  • How to help

    The Urban Ministry Center is seeking public help in locating homeless people in secluded areas, including camps and abandoned buildings. Email Liz Clasen-Kelly at lclasen-kelly@urbanministrycenter.org or call 704-369-7611.

One of the most extensive homeless surveys ever done in Mecklenburg County begins Tuesday, with volunteer teams set to search wooded areas, abandoned buildings and other secluded spots for the most reclusive of the community’s homeless people.

The Point In Time Count aims to capture as accurately as possible how many people are homeless in Mecklenburg County on a given night.

It’s an annual affair that dates as far back as 1990. However, organizers say this year’s count will be among the most comprehensive, with more volunteers and greater emphasis on finding the homeless in nearby towns such as Cornelius, Huntersville, Pineville, Matthews and Mint Hill.

Volunteers will also try to interview as many of the homeless as possible to document their background, condition and whether they are a veteran. The volunteers will also pass out bags of socks and necessities during site visits.

The Urban Ministry Center, which is among the organizers, is seeking help from the community in finding places where homeless people might be living, so teams can seek them out.

Liz Clasen-Kelly of the Urban Ministry Center said her hope is to more fully document the challenge Mecklenburg County faces in ending homelessness, particularly among those “street homeless” who often avoid shelter and health programs.

“Good data will show us the extent of the problem, but it’s also about understanding who is out there and who among them might be eligible for services,” Clasen-Kelly said.

“Some folks (homeless) aren’t coming to soup kitchens or shelters. And if they don’t come to the sites where services are delivered, we don’t know about them. These are the people who are very creative at surviving.”

That creativity includes not only living in camps in the woods, but staying overnight in abandoned buildings, parking garages, church doorways and Porta-Johns, she said.

The survey comes at a time when national studies show homelessness is declining among single adults and increasing among families. However, exact numbers seem to be up for debate, with homeless advocates questioning the accuracy of reports such as the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors study on homelessness, which includes about 25 cities.

That’s yet another reason why local charities are pushing hard to get a more accurate count this year.

Find the most vulnerable

In all, about 85 trained volunteers and charity staffers have been lined up to search for homeless people, including visits to camps in the early morning hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. An evening count is set for late Wednesday.

Many of those living in secluded areas are chronically homeless, a segment of the homeless population that costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars annually because of the time spent in jail, prison, emergency rooms and hospitals. They are also the most vulnerable to dying on the streets.

The Point In Time Count will also include numbers for the homeless staying in shelters and transitional housing programs. All the city’s shelters have seen a spike in clients the past two weeks because of the extreme cold.

Carson Dean of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte said the shelter hosted 468 men last week on nights when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees. That was an increase of 135 men.

The 250-bed Salvation Army Center of Hope has seen as many as 362 people on recent nights, compared with 312 in January 2013. Of that 362, more than 200 were children and one was a 72-year-old woman. The shelter is working on a plan to expand the number of beds after five years of being overcrowded.

Dean noted the Men’s Shelter has seen proof of a decline in individual homelessness, with 10 percent fewer men using the shelter compared with the same time last year.

A changing mission

However, he said that is in part because of a shift in the shelter’s mission, from warehousing the homeless to finding them income and arranging housing.

“People don’t know us as a housing provider, but that’s a big part of what we do now,” Dean said. “And over the next few years, it will be the majority of what we do because there will be less demands for shelter beds.”

That’s a sign of Charlotte’s ongoing success in ending homelessness, said Pam Jefsen of Supportive Housing Communities, which is among the homeless count organizers.

“It’s the counts that are giving us a better idea of the progress we’re making,” she said. “We’re comfortable saying homelessness among individuals is going down, but we want to be more accurate in gauging our success, so we know how much work remains to be done.”

Price: 704-358-5245

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