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Be Counted

Consultant helps the city move its annual homeless count in a new direction.

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One night every year in late January, volunteers hit the streets after midnight to count the city's unsheltered homeless population. But the late-night hours and police escorts likely prevent some of the homeless from being included in the tally.

Enter Katie Kitchin, former director of the Norfolk, Virginia, Office to End Homelessness. After her husband was tapped to run the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Kitchin began consulting Memphis on how to get better results and more information from its annual homeless count.

"Instead of an overnight, police-assisted count, we're going to do actual interviews during the day. Many people seek services, like soup kitchens, during the day, but you'd never see them at night," Kitchin says of the count scheduled for Wednesday, January 27th.

In the past, volunteers with Coalition for the Homeless rode in police cars, counting people they assumed to be homeless as they passed an encampment. Kitchin says there will be no police officers involved in this year's count.

"I've been with unsheltered folks when the police show up, and they disappear very quickly," Kitchin says. "That's why I feel strongly that we need to do this on a volunteer basis."

About 50 volunteers will carpool in their own vehicles in two shifts from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., driving to areas where homeless people are known to congregate. Though police will not be assisting in the count, Constance Graham with Coalition for the Homeless said the police will provide information on the encampments and abandoned buildings that homeless people frequent.

Rather than simply counting homeless people, the volunteers will talk one-on-one with any unsheltered person willing to be interviewed. In order to build rapport, volunteers also will be hand out blankets and sleeping bags.

"We want to get some specific information on people, like how many are veterans and how many have serious mental illnesses. We're going to ask people where they spent the night before," Kitchin says.

During Kitchin's six years with the Norfolk homelessness office, the city switched from a night to a day count, and Kitchin says they saw an increase in the number of homeless people they counted.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that cities do such counts to retain federal funding for homeless programs. Last year's Memphis count yielded 1,613 homeless people, down by about 200 people from the 2007 count.

Brad Watkins with the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center is volunteering in this year's count, and he's pleased with the changes.

These surveys is the kind of positive step that can lead to productive things," Watkins says.

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