Counting the homeless

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 The latest results of the annual “Point-in-Time” census of the local homeless population show a decrease in both the total number of homeless individuals and the number of unsheltered individuals.

While the annual, one-day census counted fewer area homeless, seasonal shelters and a growing Latino population make a defin-itive count difficult, says Kaki Dimock, director of the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless.

On January 27, volunteers for the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless (TJACH) visited local shelters and counted beds that were in use. They also went to places where homeless men and women congregate and conducted a 28-question survey about the circumstances that led them to their current state. Ultimately, volunteers counted 253 homeless, down from 274 last year.

The census also found 201 adults and 34 children in emergency shelters or transitional housing. According to TJACH’s count, the most pronounced decrease came in the number of unsheltered homeless folks: 18, compared to 27 last year.

Seventy percent of those individuals surveyed were males, and 35 percent of respondents had been homeless for less than six months.

“A bias people have about homelessness is that it’s permanent,” says Kaki Dimock, executive director of TJACH. Dimock is also executive director of The Haven, the Downtown day shelter that opened in January 2010.

“Nationally, 80 percent of people are homeless less than two years, so they transition out,” says Dimock, who says that Charlottesville data reflects the same dynamic. “Forty percent [are homeless] less than six months. It’s transitional for most people.”

The results, however, may indicate only a portion of the local homeless population.

“We are not capturing a 30,000-foot view of homelessness in our community,” she says. “Because it happens in January, [the census] counts a group of people as sheltered in our community that, six months out of the year, are not sheltered,” she says. PACEM, the area’s major emergency shelter, is seasonal and only operates from October to April.

“The data that we report to the federal government has a tendency to skew towards a more chronically homeless population,” says Dimock. “It appears as though we have a group that is homeless longer with a greater need than we may actually have, if we counted everybody who is truly homeless,” says Dimock. She adds that TJACH’s census also doesn’t account for homeless Latinos who may not access traditional shelters and care systems.

“We don’t know where they are, so we can’t go gather the data, so the data doesn’t reflect their needs,” says Dimock.

TJACH will submit census data to the federally funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as part of a grant request that could bring $350,000 for three consecutive years. The SAMHSA grant, called Cooperative Agreements to Benefit Homeless Individuals, supports the creation of programs to address mental health issues and substance abuse, problems among the chronic homeless population.

The grant request is a collaboration between TJACH, the City of Charlottesville and Region Ten, a local mental health service provider. Grant money would fund a benefits worker staff position with the City of Charlottesville, two clinicians with Region Ten (one for outreach and one for assessment and programming) and a case manager at The Haven.

While Dimock says the likelihood of receiving the grant is slim, the application has helped clarify the needs for the area homeless population. “We might be in a position to take this sort of programming and try to market it to another funder,” she says.

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