The last time New Haven counted, its homeless population was about 2,000. But now, three years later, the number is probably much higher, and volunteers are setting out to prove it.
On Monday the New Haven Continuum of Care kicked off the 2003 community-wide homeless count for New Haven. The Continuum, a local interagency group, is working with several of nonprofit organizations to conduct a comprehensive count of the city’s entire homeless population.
The project is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and will run through Feb. 23. New Haven is required to count its homeless population in order for its agencies to receive government funding. The region currently receives about $2 million, the Continuum reported in a press release.
Despite Monday’s snowstorm, the count went ahead as planned, said Dr. Katie Scrimenti, who is in the Continuum’s homeless count work group. Though the weather affected the street count, she said volunteers were able to begin working in the shelters and in other indoor places.
Over the course of this week, crews of volunteers will seek out homeless people across New Haven and record basic information about them. Volunteers will visit homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and they will also search remote outdoor areas.
Rachel Heerema, executive director of Life Haven, said all the volunteers are highly trained, and their safety should not be a problem.
“Homeless people aren’t dangerous, they’re just homeless,” she said.
Although it does not fund the effort, HUD requires the count to be taken every three years. In 1999, bed counts were taken at the city’s shelters, and about 2,000 homeless people were documented, the Associated Press reported. This year, the goal is to make the count much more comprehensive.
In the press release, the Continuum said it is seeking to account for “invisible” homeless people, or people who do not have permanent addresses because they are staying with relatives or friends.
Heerema said there are several ways to target such “invisible” people. The Continuum is calling on urban churches, schools, and New Haven 911 operators to provide information about homeless people who might not seek traditional services. Heerema said the names of these individuals will be kept confidential, but the Continuum will use the data gathered from them.
Colleen Shaddox, vice president of development for the Youth Continuum, said adolescents, such as those her agency serves, are less likely to be found in places that are classically associated with homeless people. Shaddox said these young adults have been given the name “couch-surfers.” Moving around from place to place disrupts schooling and makes it difficult to find a job, much less to build a future, she said.
Heerema said she does not think the government is looking to push federal aid for New Haven up or down. However, she said people from all levels of government are always looking to cut back spending, so it is important for New Haven agencies to justify their continuing need for funds.
Shaddox said there is not nearly enough funding for the homeless problem.
“In fact, most homeless-serving organizations in New Haven have seen — fairly dramatic cuts in the last few months,” she said.
Both Shaddox and Heerema stressed the need for supportive services in addition to meeting immediate housing needs. Shaddox said serving the homeless is not an “in-and-out sort of process,” and providing long-term support is crucial to solving the larger problem of homelessness.