Counting the uncounted

Published 10:43 pm Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mrs. Harper and her husband have been living on the streets for more than a week.

They hoped to rent a trailer in Smithfield, Mrs. Harper tells a volunteer, but that deal fell through. So, on Thursday afternoon, they were on the streets of Suffolk again — for the fourth time in less than three years.

“I’ve been in Suffolk my whole life,” Mrs. Harper says.


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Sitting on a bench in front of a law office on Main Street, Mrs. Harper answers the volunteer’s questions about her age, her children and the last place she lived. A bag of clothes sits on the bench beside her, and a bag of snacks and juice boxes rests by her feet. When the questions are done, she and her husband — who walked up halfway through the interview — gratefully accept sandwiches, chips, hats and toiletries.

Volunteers found the couple during the annual Western Tidewater Continuum of Care Point-in-Time Homeless Persons Survey. The homeless count, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps communities understand the true magnitude of their homeless population, and it helps determine where monetary aid to fight homelessness should flow.

The count began late Wednesday night, when several teams set out from the ForKids Suffolk House on Finney Avenue, carrying flashlights, food and hats for the homeless people they were seeking.

The teams — including police officers, Suffolk House personnel and Western Tidewater Community Services Board volunteers — scoured the city, looking in abandoned buildings, wooded areas and storage facilities. They found no homeless people, but they did find evidence of recently used hiding places — dirty clothing in a silo, trash in a truck trailer, even a shanty constructed in the woods behind a shopping center.

“We did not find actual people, but we found clear evidence,” said Rhonda Woody, the director of the ForKids Suffolk House. The ForKids organization helped coordinate Western Tidewater’s homeless count efforts.

“We found some clear sites where they were living,” Woody said. “Places you wouldn’t imagine … I cannot imagine sleeping there, but people do it.”

The teams were assisted by Suffolk Police Officer Chris Butler, who did extensive reconnaissance prior to the count by asking fellow officers where they had seen homeless people or evidence of them, and by researching places where residents had reported homeless people to the police. Some of the places checked were “the type of place where, traditionally, homeless can be found,” Woody said.

A team went out again during the afternoon on Thursday, checking the campsites they had found the night before to see if anybody had returned. Nobody had, but the team still found four homeless people — Mrs. Harper and her husband, as well as two men who were spending the day behind stores on Pitchkettle Road, near the intersection with West Washington Street.

Each homeless person was interviewed, and their responses recorded by the team. Each person received a sandwich and chips donated by Chick-fil-A, and a bag that included a hat, mittens, and hotel-size toiletries donated by the Hilton Garden Inn.

The homeless people each answered questions about their age, gender and ethnicity, last permanent residence and benefits they are receiving. They also were asked about mental illness, substance abuse, HIV status, domestic violence history, education level, foster care in childhood and past homelessness — all factors that influence a person’s risk of becoming homeless.

All communities in Virginia did their counts between 7 p.m. Wednesday to 7 p.m. Thursday to prevent duplication. In addition to unsheltered homeless people, volunteers counted people in hospitals, jails and shelters who have no permanent address.

“We’re capturing every contact opportunity a homeless individual might use to seek shelter,” Woody said. “It’s so important. People are suffering.”