Counting homeless people in Toledo requires more than just mathematics.
For the volunteers and outreach workers fanning the city Wednesday for an annual homeless count, it required patience, compassion, and accepting that their figures wouldn't be perfect.
This year's effort focused on questioning people at feeding sites, with the aim of finding as many homeless people as possible, including those who don't stay at shelters. But not everyone wanted to be counted.
"Some of them are ashamed of being homeless. They don't understand there's nothing to be ashamed of," said Juanita Savage Person, who runs the Martin Luther King Kitchen for the Poor on Vance Street in Toledo.
"I try to reassure them that, you know, you don't have to be ashamed. ... You have to let people know that you're in need."
Assessing the need in Toledo for homeless-related services is precisely the point of the survey, which continues through Thursday. The count is conducted nationwide, and is organized here by the Toledo Area Alliance to End Homelessness and the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board.
The idea is to get a snapshot of how many people are homeless or precariously housed on a particular night in January. In Toledo, the night chosen by organizers was Tuesday.
Figures collected in the count are passed on to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and can influence how much funding homeless programs in the city receive.
"It's imperative to have as accurate a count as possible so we can better serve the needs of the homeless in the community," explained Donna Perras, executive director of Harbor House, a transitional shelter for homeless women, and a team member helping with the count.
In previous years, surveyors tried to find the unsheltered homeless by going out to the streets at night to find them, Deb Conklin, director of the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board, said.
But those people proved hard to find because they tend to be hidden, so turning to food sites that serve the homeless seemed a better way to get an accurate count.
So volunteers are visiting 20 food sites this year to help with the count.
The numbers they find are added to data collected from homeless shelters and from an early-morning search on the streets by trained outreach workers familiar with those among the homeless population whom the count might have missed, Ms. Conklin said.
People who agree to be surveyed are asked where they slept on Tuesday night, as well as questions about family status, how long they've been homeless, and whether they have mental health or drug problems. They do not have to provide their names.
Last year, 959 people were found to be homeless in Toledo, both sleeping on the streets, in shelters, or in precarious living conditions. That was up from 800 in 2008. Ms. Conklin said homeless numbers in the city tend to hover around 1,000, but the people in that situation change from year to year. Today more families are finding themselves homeless because of job losses and foreclosures, she said.
The count, which should be complete by Feb. 12, could also be higher than last year's because HUD widened its definition of the homeless to include people with no permanent residence such as those staying on a friend's couch, organizers said.
Even with improved survey methods, 15 to 20 percent of homeless people are likely to be missed by the count, Ms. Conklin said. She and others working with the homeless said many people are either too embarrassed by their predicament to talk about it, or are wary of being asked questions.
At the MLK Kitchen for the Poor yesterday, however, 55-year-old Yvonne Barnett was not keeping quiet. The native Toledoan said she became homeless after losing her job as a cleaner, and has since spent two years living in a burned-out house infested with rats.
Recently, she moved to a homeless shelter run by the Cherry Street Mission, she said.
"You've gotta fight all the time, every day you gotta fight. It's hard," Ms. Barnett said, adding that she tries to remain hopeful. "I keep happy, but sometimes I get sad, but I keep on going."
Houston Hart, Jr., 46, said he became homeless six months ago after his mother passed away, causing him great distress. He said he spent some nights sleeping in abandoned houses and now stays at a shelter. Many of the other homeless people he meets have serious health problems but can't get the medical care they need, Mr. Hart said.
Living on the streets is dangerous, he added. "It's a mental strain. To be homeless, you have to know the ways of the street to survive," he said.
It's the second time Mr. Hart has been homeless; the first time was in 1989. These days, Mr. Hart said he sees a lot more young people in his predicament than he used to, and that upsets him.
"There's no help for them, there's no place where they can go and say, I've messed up, I don't know where to go, I don't know what to do," he said. "Avenues need to be opened up for the homeless."
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272.
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