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Point In Time

HUD’s annual homeless count provides an enlightening snapshot of homelessness in the Fort Wayne area

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-02-02


It’s an often repeated claim that the average family or individual in the United States is only three paychecks away from homelessness.

I had heard the claim repeated often enough as a given fact, though for the life of me, I didn’t know where it came from. Rachel Rayburn, an associate professor in IPFW’s Department of Public Policy who has studied homelessness, says she doubts the claim is literally true. “But it expresses metaphorically the fact that a sizable fraction of the US population lives paycheck to paycheck, has few if any financial reserves (savings), and would have trouble paying the bills if they missed a paycheck,” she says.

She refers to a study done in Central Florida where respondents were asked whether they would still be able to pay their bills if they missed a month’s worth of pay. 56% of low income respondents, 38% of middle income respondents, and even 24% of upper income respondents said they wouldn’t. “Since one of the bills they might miss would be the rent payment, they are in that sense only a few paychecks away from being homeless,” Rayburn adds.

The housing crisis and economic downturn has thrown into stark relief just how precarious the lives of millions of people are when it comes to financial stability, and have seemed to bring about a new urgency to the issue of homelessness.

Each year, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) delivers its Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, a document that serves as one of the leading resources of data and trends related to homelessness in the country.

The effort is a massive one, relying on data collected from thousands of communities all across the US, and it provides a snapshot of the issue on a state-by-state, region-by-region basis. And per HUD guidelines, a great deal of the data is collected during a “Point In Time” count that takes place on a single night during the last week of January.

This year’s “Point In Time” count happened January 25, and just as in years previous, a group of volunteer organizers coordinated with local service providers to survey Fort Wayne’s homeless population.

The count is a requirement in order to be eligible for HUD funding, explains Marcy Yoder, the coordinator for this year’s point in time count in Fort Wayne. “HUD chooses the day and gives you the guidelines,” says Yoder, who also serves as the Chair for the Fort Wayne Area Planning Council on Homelessness and is the Income and Basic Needs Coordinator for the United Way of Allen County. “That’s at the federal level. At the state level, the Indiana Corporation for Housing and Development is the governing body that helps with all the HUD policy, procedures, and best practices.”

As we said above, the organizers have just 24 hours to get it done, though the date is set months in advance, so organizers can prepare and train volunteers. “HUD limits the time to 24-hours to reduce the chances of counting the same person twice,” says Rachel Rayburn, who participated in several point in time counts in Orlando before moving to Fort Wayne this past year.

The survey has two components. First, organizers connect with service providers in the community so they can get the word out. “We established connections to all the shelters and soup kitchens, because there are several people that are homeless that won’t go to the shelter but will go and get other types of assistance,” says Rayburn.

The second — and more challenging — part of the survey is to do the unsheltered count. The volunteers split into teams and go to places where homeless people usually congregate. A street ministry called Hearts Helping the Homeless provided assistance and also served as a sort of “bridge” for between volunteers and the homeless who were reluctant to talk to someone they didn’t know.

For purposes of funding, HUD defines homeless as people living in a homeless shelter of some kind; or anybody that’s living in a place “not suitable for human habitation” — a car, an abandoned building, a tent, on the street. “Basically, anywhere not in a house, an apartment, or a shelter,” explains Marcy Yoder.

Last year’s “point in time” count documented 468 homeless in our region, Region 3, which includes Allen, Huntington, Noble, Steuben and Whitley Counties. 348 of these were in Allen County, including 39 households with dependent children (126 people).

Rayburn adds that HUD does not include people who are “precariously housed.” “Those are people who have ‘doubled up’ — sleeping on a friend’s couch, for instance — or maybe living in a hotel,” she says. “For the purposes of funding, HUD doesn’t consider that homelessness, though many people would.” Because of situations like that, Rayburn believes that the homeless count might be underestimated.

Though the majority of the 468 homeless in Region 3 fell into the “sheltered” category — people who were using some kind of homeless shelter for emergency or transitional help — 19 individuals were in the “unsheltered” category.

The findings for this year won’t be available for a couple of months, but Rayburn doesn’t expect them to change much from last year. Homelessness in the United States in general has declined slightly since 2007 — partially due, according to HUD, to a 34% increase in “permanent supportive housing beds” during that time — and Rayburn sees our area reflecting national trends in many aspects. “We know that nationally, about 1/3 of the homeless are veterans of the armed services,” she explains. “Also, only about 1/3 have some sort of substance abuse problem, and 1/3 suffer from mental illness.”

Last year’s survey of Region 3 counted 50 veterans (all sheltered); 171 individuals reporting substance abuse problems (2 unsheltered); and 89 categorized as mentally ill (2 unsheltered).

But while homelessness has declined over the past several years, many services in the area and nationwide report an increase in the number of people homeless for the first time. These are people who don’t fit HUD’s definition of “chronic homelessness,” which is an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. “One of the things we’ve seen are people who have always been employed, but the position no longer exists, and they weren’t able to get reconnected,” says Marcy Yoder. “Sometimes they’ve had a catastrophic medical issue, or a chronic condition, and on top of having lost their job, they wound up losing their house, their car, etc.”

Also, there has been an increase in the number of homeless families, a trend that those looking at the issue don’t have a lot of data on. “We’re just beginning to hear about that,” Rayburn says. “There aren’t a lot of shelters for entire family units — usually you’ll find shelters just for men, or just for women, or just for women with children, or men with children. In order to get help, they would have to split the family up, so rather than do that, we’re finding that these families try to live somewhere else, like a tent in the woods. But there are a lot of different types of situations, and we’re just beginning to hear about them.”

Rayburn believes that, in terms of accuracy and organization, this year’s point in time count went very well, and that volunteers and the community really came together. For next year, she says she’d like to see more involvement from law enforcement. “We know there are probably people in jail who have nowhere to go once they’re released,” she says. “We didn’t have anyone at the jail to account for those people.”

Yoder is also encouraged by the cooperation she saw in this year’s count. One of the overall goals of the Fort Wayne Area Planning Council on Homelessness is to strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency among organizations in the area that provide services to the homeless. “One of the exciting things that’s happening here is that the level of coordination, cooperation and collaboration among our providers is increasing,” she says. “Some of those supporting partners who have some of the additional services that are necessary for those homeless individuals to move forward — to get to the point where their lives are restabilized and they’re back as working citizens able to maintain their own independence — all those things are getting better connected. We’re able to offer a better understanding of how that network works and how to help people navigate that.”

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