From packed emergency shelters to campsites in the snow, the annual headcount of the region’s homeless population Wednesday cast a wide net to get as accurate a report as possible.
Organizations that receive federal funding to address homelessness from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are required to conduct an annual point-in-time count each January. Across New Hampshire, agencies coordinated to accomplish a difficult goal: count every single person experiencing homelessness in one 24-hour period.
The data are collected from check-in stations throughout the region and from teams dispatched to known homeless camps in the woods. The report is typically released the following December.
The point-in-time count is meant to be a one-day snapshot of homelessness in the area, according to Robert Waters, a homeless outreach specialist with Southwestern Community Services.
“It shows the need for where we’re at with our states and with our counties,” Waters said.
When each person completes a quick survey for the annual headcount, they identify which circumstance best describes them by state and federal definitions. Waters said this information can help steer where money is funneled in the future.
For instance, he said, an increase in sheltered or doubled-up individuals — people staying with friends or family — could indicate a need for more rapid rehousing programs in the county. The data could also prompt state agencies to ask more questions about the root causes of homelessness, such as lower wages or an uptick in evictions.
“We’re always trying to catch, like, the demographic, but we don’t catch the ‘why’ anymore,” he said. “... It can really kind of dictate the way the government looks at our state and can provide us funding accordingly for what we need to try to better the situation.”
Tallying every person experiencing homelessness is a daunting challenge, and Waters said that’s why volunteers and agencies across the region cooperate during the annual count. Organizations across the county, both HUD-funded and not, participate as “PIT (point-in-time) stops.” Volunteers and staff help people complete surveys in person and over the phone at emergency shelters, The Community Kitchen and Cheshire Housing Trust.
Hundred Nights Inc., which operates a cold-weather shelter and year-round drop-in resource center in Keene, is one of the organizations that assists in the count but doesn’t receive federal money.
“I think that having a number that you can at least use as a baseline is really important,” Executive Director Melinda L. “Mindy” Cambiar said.
In filling out a survey with a woman Wednesday, Cambiar began by explaining to her that the data from the point-in-time count help determine how much funding the state receives from HUD.
Once the woman agreed to fill out the form on behalf of her family, Cambiar asked a series of questions that began with the initials and third letter of each person’s last name — which Cambiar said is helpful to the state when sorting out duplicate forms.
The woman, who asked not to be identified in this article, then gave the birth year, gender, race and ethnicity of herself and the four others in her family. Cambiar marked on the form that the family includes children.
Then the survey asked if the woman is chronically homeless, and Cambiar gave the HUD definition: A person who has been homeless for one year consecutively or has experienced at least four separate episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
Cambiar asked the woman where her family stayed the previous night, with options on the form including emergency shelter, transitional housing, a motel, with friends or family, or somewhere outside, which might be in a car or a campsite.
And one of the more difficult questions, as Cambiar explained later, asked if each person is “among the following subpopulations”: severely mentally ill, HIV/AIDS, chronic substance misuse, actively fleeing domestic violence, or a U.S. veteran.
“But that’s where people put up the barriers, is with those questions,” Cambiar said.
Some people find it difficult to identify with some of the subsets, she said, and others aren’t sure what they mean. For instance, she said someone asked what constitutes “severely mentally ill” for a person taking medication.
For the first couple years Cambiar remembers participating in the count, she said questions about the subpopulations were off-putting for people, who thought the survey was too intrusive.
“So I think that we decided at the end of that PIT count that we had to have a different approach with people, and that’s why we started talking about, you know, the importance of accurate numbers and the funding and ‘your participation will help,’ ” she said.
Getting an accurate count is challenging, Cambiar said, but a community the size of Cheshire County handles the task well. She imagined that cities and counties with larger populations likely struggle to include everyone in one day, but the combined effort of so many organizations in Keene and neighboring communities keeps it manageable.
Waters said the same, noting that “it’s tougher to hide from us ’cause everybody knows and everybody’s aware.” Walking around The Community Kitchen during dinner Wednesday evening, he knew most people by name and caught up with several about their housing situations before sharing a quick hug.
Advocates and organizations in the area have worked diligently to make the count a community-wide effort in the past couple years, Waters said. It’s still a work in progress that involves learning what’s successful and what isn’t, but it’s always improving, he said.
For next year’s count, he said he hopes to get more advertising and education efforts throughout the region.
As for the 2019 figures, he expects to see an increase in the number of doubled-up individuals because organizations are consistently counting those people this year. The number of families experiencing homelessness might drop slightly, he added, because he’s noticed more of them getting rehoused recently.
Cambiar said Hundred Nights has seen an uptick in families this year, but she noted that some found housing in the weeks leading up to the count, so they won’t be included in the report.
Meanwhile, as advocates and volunteers worked throughout Wednesday to get an accurate headcount, both Cambiar and Waters confirmed that their organizations’ shelters are still full.
“We can’t do this by ourselves. We’re just a Band-Aid, and it’s going to take an entire community getting together to actually make something happen,” Cambiar said.