Rochester, N.Y.— It’s around 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, January 30th and a group of about a dozen volunteers have gathered at the Civic Center Parking Garage in the city of Rochester.
Armed with packets of hand warmers, sandwiches and coffee, they spread out through the garage passing out food and trying to strike up conversations with homeless people who are planning to spend the night in the garage.
These volunteers are conducting a Point in Time Count for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Count aims to measure homelessness over the course of one night every January. Every year, around the last week of January, volunteers across the country head out into their communities to survey the homeless.
The most vital information the volunteers gather are age, gender and the person’s location. If the homeless person is willing to provide more information, the volunteers ask them how long they have homeless, what circumstances led to their homelessness and what sources of income they may have.
According to Tree Clemonds, the director of resident services at the Sojurner House, the data collected from the survey is used to determine how much need is in the community. It also used to figure out how much federal funding a community can get to help its homeless population.
“The count is always vital because unless we know how many [homeless] people we have, we don't know how many resources we need,” Clemonds explained. “We have great resources in the county and they are coordinated well, but we need more. Our funding is being cut and we can't let that happen.”
Last year’s Point in Time Count determined there were more than 600 homeless people in Rochester on any given night. Of those people, more than 20 of them would sleep outdoors. Clemonds says HUD funding has been cut this year and the need is still great.
Clemonds helped coordinate this year’s Point in Time Count for the city and she says local agencies are making sure underserved homeless populations like youths and veterans are also counted. Local shelters and emergency housing providers are also conducting the survey.
“In some ways [homelessness] is a growing problem, but in some ways it's a knowledge problem,” she said. “Are we accurately identifying who is homeless and who is at risk of homelessness?”
One homeless couple who did not want to be identified was settling into their sleeping bags on the concrete floors of the parking garage when three volunteers approached them.
The volunteers gave them food and started to ask the questions.
The woman said they had only been homeless for the past two weeks after they were evicted from their home.
“We had to leave a little earlier than expected,” she explained. “They don't have couples homeless shelters and I'm not going to leave my boyfriend. We were told us about this [parking garage] down here. It's quite nice down here.”
The woman says the garage is a good place to stay for homeless people in the winter, but says she still constantly worries about shelter.
“When you find a place to sleep somewhere, they come by and beep and honk at you at 5:30 in the morning and you have to be out [of the garage]. On a cold day like it's going to be tomorrow and when nothing is going to be open until 8:30 in the morning, you have to sit outside and freeze.”
She says the past two weeks of living on the streets has been difficult but she can’t fathom what it must be like for those who’ve been homeless for years.
“I can't imagine it. I'm ready for a place of my own. I don’t know how they do it.”
The couple believes that they are many good resources for the homeless in the city. One local agency helped them get the security deposit they needed for their new apartment. Their ordeal is almost over. They move in at the end of the week.
The survey is conducted for a 24-hour period and is always during the last 10 days of January. The results of the survey will be available in a couple of months.