Understanding our ‘shadow population’

Volunteers prepare to count homeless people in the community

By RUSTY PRAY

SUN CORRESPONDENT

It’s about more than counting heads.

The Point in Time Homeless Count, scheduled for the evening of Jan. 23 and the morning of Jan. 24, is a full survey of the sheltered and unsheltered homeless population in Charlotte County. It is designed to reveal not only the how many, but the who and the why.

The information collected in the two-part effort will be used to inform the Gulf Coast Partnership of the types of programs and services most needed by the homeless in the county.

According to its website, the Gulf Coast Partnership’s goal is to “end homelessness through innovation and collaboration. Through capacity building, partnership, and technology, the GCP brings service programs together, while focusing limited community resources on the most vulnerable populations living in the community.”

Gaither Stephens, its chief technology officer, said the organization will “use those numbers for everything. It helps us to understand the scope of homelessness and identify trends. It also allows us to target resources and improve services.

“It’s a key indicator for homelessness in the community.”

Stephens conducted the second of two training sessions in preparation for the count Wednesday at the Charlotte Community Foundation in Punta Gorda. Sixteen people attended, representing organizations from the Punta Gorda Police Department to nonprofits that service the homeless such as the Homeless Coalition and Virginia B. Andes Clinic.

Claudia DeBruyn of Port Charlotte, a Realtor who works out of a Cape Coral office, was among those who attended. She has volunteered with the Homeless Coalition in fundraising events, but this will be the first time she has gone into homeless camps to help take stock of Charlotte’s shadow population.

“I was looking for a project with a definite, short time-frame,” she said. “When this is over, I’ll find another project.”

The count will begin the evening of Jan. 23 with homeless who are sheltered by a service agency, not in a private home. Someone engaged in “couch surfing” of a benefactor’s home will not be included in the count.

The count of the unsheltered homeless will begin at 7 a.m. Jan. 24. Wednesday’s workshop was to brief volunteers on procedures and familiarize them with the 21-question survey they will be asked to take. Stephens is the count leader.

“We kind of break it up” between the time the homeless return to shelters at sundown and the time they begin their days. Unsheltered homeless include those living in cars, under bridges and in camps, Stephens said.

The count seeks to determine how many homeless are families, youth, or veterans, what assistance they might be receiving, their health. In other words, the count is an attempt to provide a comprehensive demographic snapshot of the homeless population.

Volunteers who will be conducting the survey Jan. 24 will be asking the homeless a wide range of questions – 21 in all – from their names to whether they are running away from something. The survey is designed to take about 10 minutes to complete.

The first question: Where did you sleep last night?

Question 15: Is this the first time you’ve been homeless?

Question 16: How long have you been homeless this time?

Question 21: Are you fleeing domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking?

The volunteers are asked to follow common-sense guidelines such as showing patience and compassion, and ensuring objectivity and confidentiality.

Stephens called the survey a necessary step in making “homelessness brief, rare, and one time. … Having knowledgeable leadership within the community helping us and guiding us is invaluable.”

For more information, go to www.GulfCoastPartnership.org or call 941-626-0220.

Gaither Stephens of the Gulf Coast Partnership makes a point during a workshop in preparation for a Point in Time Homeless Count in Charlotte County.

SUN PHOTO BY RUSTY PRAY

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