Saturday, February 24, 2018

Annual count seeks community needs, focuses on 'chronically homeless'

Megan Hix

By Megan Hix
Jan. 25, 2018 at 11:57 p.m.

Above: Jane Smith and Parker Harrison look over a potential homeless camp in a wooded area off  U.S 80 near Whataburger in Longview, while collecting information Thursday about the local homeless population  during the annual Point-in-Time Survey. Below:  Patricia Fuller and Michaelle Starling speak with Donald McKeathan and Henry Harvey outside  the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission during the Point-in-Time Survey on Thursday.

A 24-hour survey could help local organizations "fill in the gaps" for the homeless community in Longview.

On Thursday, about 40 volunteers spread out through Longview to get a count of the homeless people living in the city for the annual Point-In-Time Survey. The information, which will be reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps government and nonprofit organizations identify the community's needs.

Longview Community Development Specialist Dakota Brown led the survey effort this year. He said volunteers were particularly focused on finding out how they can help people who have been repeatedly homeless or without a permanent address for more than a year.

"Last year, we saw a dramatic increase in chronically homeless people," Brown said. "These are the people who have slipped through the cracks."

In the past two years, the survey has focused on youth and veteran homelessness at the request of the federal government. This year, the city chose to pay closer attention to the needs of long-term homeless people in hopes of providing more comprehensive services to them in the future.

Brown said volunteers handed out care bags containing items especially important to the homeless population, including Federal Emergency Management Agency ration boxes, body cleansing wipes, other toiletries and information about services they might need.

Longview's homeless population counts have grown in each of the past two years, but Brown said that doesn't necessarily mean the population itself is increasing, just that the survey is getting a more realistic total.

Last year's total count of 380 was one of the city's most accurate to date, Brown said, attributing the success to a mapping program that allows him to send volunteers into busier areas in real time.

"With that flexibility, it allows us to be reactive and get a better count," Brown said.

An estimate on the 2018 count was unavailable Thursday.

He said one of the survey's challenges is trying to reach as many people as possible within the 24-hour window, with volunteers usually canvassing as much of the area as possible between 6 a.m. and 10:30 p.m.

This year also might be the first year the city has seen a significant group of displaced people show up in the count, Brown said.

Last year, only five identified natural disaster as a reason for their own homelessness.

"They're expecting quite a few in the area to have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey," Brown said.

The survey itself goes far beyond demographic data.

Brown said a person only needs to give their initials, age and where they spent the previous night to contribute to the official count, but volunteers will ask about mental health history, sexuality, criminal history, if the person's parents were divorced, if they were kicked out of their home and other sensitive questions.

"As you get further along, they open up," he said. "We want to understand their stories ... to get the full picture."

Brown said volunteers are also hoping to get some of the stories on recording, "straight from the horse's mouth." The self-identified needs could help the city get federal grant money to provide more program options.

Brown said he is optimistic that the results from East Texas and the rest of the state will be finalized and released quickly this year, as cities Longview's size and larger now are required to send data electronically.

He said he hopes the information can benefit local organizations looking to see where they can make the biggest impact.

Newgate Mission, a nonprofit organization that serves low-income and homeless people in Longview, is one of the many groups to participate in this year's survey.

Executive Director Hollie Bruce said the results help Newgate and other groups tailor their services to the individuals who need them.

She said the most pressing issue she expects the results to highlight is the prevalence of mental illness. About 32 percent of people surveyed in 2017 told volunteers they suffered from a serious mental illness.

"Mental illness is a trend among the homeless population, and certainly one that poses major challenges across the country," Bruce wrote in an email. "There are so many pieces to the puzzle regarding mental health issues — medication compliance, hospitalization, counseling, housing and support systems, to name a few."



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