Jan. 30's annual Homeless Point-in-Time Count will not only determine how many people in Fort Wayne have no place to live, but how much funding the community will get to deal with the issue.
This year the Fort Wayne Area Planning Council on Homelessness is coordinating the count. Getting the number of those who are homeless is critical to help determine the amount of funding available from the state and federal governments for homeless assistance.
Rebecca Karcher, director of Community Engagement, Community Development, for the city of Fort Wayne, and Tiffany Bailey, director of 2-1-1 Call Services, Income and Basic Needs, with the United Way of Allen County both serve on the homelessness council and recently talked about why the count is so important for the area.
Housing and Urban Development requires every community to do the count on the same day of the year, every year. HUD has a very strict set of criteria that defines who is homeless.
“You either slept in a shelter last night or you slept outside or in another area unfit for human habitation,” Karcher said.
Karcher said someone could have slept in a car or in a garage. People who drift from friend to friend or family members, “couch surfing” with no real address of their own, don't count as homeless.
“The count gives us a good idea on that one day of how many homeless are out there. As we work as a council, in the region, it helps us to see what the need is, what we have, where the gaps are and what additional services we need,” Bailey said.
Certain groups in the community fall through the cracks, Karcher said, like single women who don't have an addiction problem. The city has no shelter for them. Men can go to the Rescue Mission.
Inner Faith Hospitality recently had to turn away 72 families because of a lack of room. They are families stuck in the transitional shelters because they cannot find adequate long-term housing. This keeps people who are in need of transitional housing out in the cold, Bailey said.
“When the shelters are full, where do they go?” Karcher said.
In 2011, 468 people were counted; in 2012 there were 558. Those numbers include men, women and children, both the unsheltered and those in transitional and emergency shelters.
People involved with the count try to make contact with those living outside of the shelters by having people who offer them aid on a daily basis tell them the count is happening and encourage them to come out for it. Posters have been placed in a number of places including area shelters, the public library branches, and Wayne Township to encourage people to come out and be counted.
Volunteers on the count day ask participants a variety of questions including their name, age, how long they have been homeless, how many times in the last year they have been homeless, and have they ever been told they have a mental illness, addiction, or alcoholism?
Karcher said people she surveyed were free with their information. They are there because they want to be helped.
“The stories are just heart wrenching,” Karcher said.
Nearly all the people have some big event in their lives that they couldn't recover from, and it is humbling to see how fast it can happen, Karcher explained.
“That could be me,” she said.
These stories and numbers, Bailey explained, helps the group determine what barriers these people face to get off the street. It lets them know if there are community services that are being overlooked or not being provided for these people.
Bailey said the Rescue Mission on West Superior Street has seen a 16 percent increase in free public meals that it has served in the past few months and Wellspring Interfaith Social Services on Broadway has been tapping into its emergency food bank to meet needs in November and December.
Karcher said the overall feeling is there is a rising number of people who are homeless and looking for help.