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Wednesday, January 20,2010

The hardest count

A count of Lansing’s homeless starts next week

by Gretchen Cochran

Ask the folks conducting the 2010 Census and they will tell you there is no more difficult population to count than the homeless.


"If they don’t want to be found, then they won’t be," said Sharon Dade, program director at the Volunteers of America.


On Jan. 27, the various people who work with those slipping through the social safety net will fan out across the Lansing area to do a "Point in Time Homeless Count." The numbers will help gauge progress in dealing with homelessness and give the community advantage when applying for federal funds, Dade said.


Count stations will be set up at the Capital Area Transportation Authority bus station in downtown Lansing, the
Capital Area District Library main library also in downtown Lansing,
the emergency rooms Sparrow Hospital and Ingham Regional Medical
Center, at the city and the county jails, the VOA shelter on Cedar
Street, and in the lobby of the state Department of Human Services. In
addition to being counted, participants will answer 13 questions
ranging from where a person slept the previous night, whether they’re
disabled, and whether they’re a veteran, and in return will be offered
incentives such as jackets and backpacks.


The
highest number of “unsheltered” people found by the count, which are
homeless who may sleep in parking garages or apartment building
vestibules, Dade said, was 17. But
she knows there are more out there: In 2008, the VOA served 75,000
meals to the needy. In the last 12 months, it has served 82,000. The
numbers for the 2009 count were not available, but Dade said in 2008,
4,254 homeless — but not necessarily “unsheltered” — were counted.


Change
is occurring not only in the numbers but also in the demographics.
Singleparent families are the fastest growing category. Change is
happening on the government level, too. The bureaucratic thinking about
homelessness is shifting from emergency shelter funding to emergency
solutions funding, Dade said.


"The (federal government is) trying to turn off the faucet of people coming into homelessness," she says.


Data from the count will go into a report, which can guide how to help the help improve the care for homeless people.


This year’s count will include a new group: those
who are at risk of becoming homeless. Dade has been working in the
field for eight years and she and others in the countywide Homeless
Resolution Network know the signs when people are just hanging on, and
there are more today than in the past. They include those who are
facing foreclosure or eviction, spending more than half of their income
on housing, and those who are living in substandard housing.


There
are still loose ends for the homeless count. About 25 workers will help
with the 24-hour push, but Dade needs at least 25 more volunteers to
help them. She also needs more incentives to lure the homeless into the
various homeless count sites and is encouraging anyone interested in
donating supplies or lending a hand to contact her. Dade is also trying
to get the Lansing Mall to allow a count station, particularly to make
contact with teens that may be at risk.


"We’ll probably never end homelessness. But
we can build stronger systems so that when people fall into the spot of
no place to live, they can come out of the situation more quickly,"
Dade said. But, first, the community needs an accurate picture of the
extent of the need.



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