During our difficult winter weather months, members of the National Coalition for the Homeless AmeriCorps*VISTA program are working diligently with their partners in local communities to conduct “Point in Time” homeless counts.
Point-in-Time PiT counts often look different form one community to the next, but the purpose is singular. Required by US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the PiT count is a volunteer led effort to try to capture an accurate picture of the number of homeless individuals living in shelters and on the street. Data from the count enables service providers to gauge the extent of homelessness, determine the services needed to prevent, reduce and end it, and help leverage federal funding to support homeless directed services. However the truth concerning the fullest accounting or enumeration of America’s homeless men, women and children lies somewhere far beyond current attempts at data collection.
When volunteer enumerators seek to count those experiencing homelessness they can find them sleeping in a downtown square, a park bench, sleeping out in a car, or hidden from public view under a bridge. Since the counts began, more than two decades ago, there has been considerable controversy concerning the efficacy of a nationwide enumeration. However, the National Coalition for the Homeless and its member organizations believe that many communities across the country are capable counters, wonderful advocates and stewards for progress towards ending homeless. In spite of the best efforts by local area advocate and providers, it’s still remains difficult to imagine that an accurate portrayal of homelessness can be found in a majority of local communities. Nonetheless this is how numbers are collected and resources are allocated. So, America’s only enumeration of those experiencing homelessness is still a very important annual “tradition” for community stakeholders working to end homelessness. In dealing with the confines of the count, NCH-VISTA members have taken this moment to use it as an outreach opportunity in their community.
NCH-VISTA members now employ many different outreach ideas and practices to reach and conduct outreach to individuals experiencing homeless in their community. The members mobilize volunteers to create care packages for individuals, hand out gift certificates, and develop relationships with the individuals that they come in contact with. Through these much needed exchanges, members are able to inform individuals in their own community about what services were available to them.
An NCH VISTA member in Florida has recounted an experience where he was able to inform a group of homeless people under encampment that they had access to a food pantry and a health clinic that they were not aware of. Our members were able to share their “survival guides” that they created, hygiene materials, as well as hand out bus passes to homeless connect events that were planned for the following days. Homeless Connect events are ways for individuals experiencing homelessness to go to one location to receive services such as health screenings, check ups, hair cuts, and job training information.
Our VISTA members are taking advantage of the opportunity to make a big impact on their communities. Though flawed, the homeless count is a great benefit to engage and make contact on a larger scale with those experiencing homelessness in some of the most meaningful ways possible.
-Brian Parks, VISTA Project Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless