City homelessness survey highlights a common cause

Results from an annual government-mandated survey of local homeless individuals were recently released by a local data analysis organization. File photo. Results from an annual government-mandated survey of local homeless individuals were recently released by a local data analysis organization. File photo.

Over the course of two days in late January, teams of volunteers filed into shelters in communities around the country to conduct a massive point-in-time survey on homelessness, including here in Charlottesville. The results of the survey of about 130 locals have just been released. The data doesn’t offer a complete picture of the homeless community here, say local advocacy groups, but at a time when federally funded organizations are facing pressure to streamline their efforts, it serves as an important reminder that everyone’s working toward the same goal.

The annual count and statistical snapshot is required of organizations that receive funding through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and in Charlottesville, that means a coordinated effort by a coalition of service providers that includes some 16 agencies and groups, including The Haven, PACEM, Region Ten, The Salvation Army, and others.

This year, local data analysis nonprofit Open Knowledge Collaborative (OKC) helped run the survey and is now crunching the numbers. Executive Director James Quinn said the data can help local organizations identify gaps in service that they can then highlight in their own advocacy work.

“If we’re speaking from the heart, then we’re going to tell stories,” he said. “If we’re speaking from the mind, we need data to back that up. If we’re going to convince people that there are issues, a good story isn’t good enough.”

The 40-question survey covered a lot of ground—demographics, family background, health, current living conditions, and more— and the results are now broken down into neat graphs on OKC’s website.

But Quinn said it’s just a limited snapshot, and only one piece of the puzzle. Providers themselves offered up a count of their beds, and that information—yet to be released—will help paint a more accurate picture of how widespread homelessness is in the area.

Colleen Keller, executive director of the nondenominational shelter PACEM, said the annual temperature-taking is a vital reminder that while there are a lot of independent groups here tackling homelessness, they all have one goal.

“What we’re watching is the number,” Keller said. “We have roughly 200 homeless adults and a growing number of families. How do we get it down?”

Her organization’s efforts are squarely focused on helping each individual who comes through the doors chart a path toward a permanent living situation. But now more than ever, local groups have to collaborate on their efforts to fight homelessness, because HUD is changing the way it delivers funding, streamlining the grant process so local money flows through one umbrella organization.

Figuring out how to allocate resources is going to be hard, said Keller. But collaboration is a good thing—and it should start with examining the survey results as a community.

“The point-in-time data transcends each organization,” she said. “Now, we all look forward.”

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