Every January, local service organizations and nonprofits count on volunteers who count.
The annual Point-in-Time count, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), records the number of people experiencing homelessness within a community to determine state and national funding for services, based on a survey completed by participants. The goal is to record the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people on a single night in January -- in this case, Tuesday night.
“These numbers help us leverage every possible resource we can and they don’t just tell us how many, they tell us who,” said Ross Altenbaugh, executive director of Flagstaff Shelter Services. “They tell us what barriers people are facing and help us understand, as programmers, what kind of programs need to exist here.”
The local count occurred Wednesday through Friday this week, as much of a tradition for participants as it was for this year’s nearly 50 volunteers who were stationed at public gathering places or drove throughout the region to seek participants.
“This does a lot for the various services in the community, so the more people we can get involved on either side of the survey, the better,” said volunteer Amanda LaPage, who has helped with the count for about the last five years.
Thursday morning, one man calmly approached a group of three volunteers at the East Flagstaff Community Library, including LaPage.
“Is this where you fill out the survey for a bus pass?” he asked.
Ethan Amos, a first-time volunteer who surveyed the man, said not all participants are in it for the incentives, though, which range from Better Bucks to sandwiches and other snacks. Earlier, another man had also asked the group about the survey.
“He didn’t take any incentives; he just wanted to fill out the survey,” Amos said, mentioning that others who were unable to speak with volunteers the previous day also returned Thursday to participate.
Rommy Sekhon, the third volunteer at the east library Thursday morning, with several years of experience, said the interest level from previous participants seemed higher this year.
“People knew that we were here, so they came to ask,” he said.
Whether participants accepted the goodies or not, volunteers worked to connect them with support, including a packet listing local resources from shelters to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. If participants were willing, they also provided their contact information for later follow-ups on resources.
“We usually have a chance to have conversations, so it’s not just answering questions,” Sekhon said. “We have that contact, that connection, to get them into the system.”
For those unfamiliar with the survey, a cluster of balloons and bright blue Census 2020 water bottles — new to count locations this year — caught their attention. Volunteers at both libraries noted people were much more curious than in previous years, even circling the table at times, because of these new features.
Jessica Madson, who volunteered for the count at the Flagstaff City-Coconino County Public Library Wednesday, said she hoped the census materials will encourage the same individuals to participate in the larger population count later this year.
During the 2018 Point-in-Time count, volunteers interviewed 86 unsheltered individuals, 74 of them in Flagstaff. People aged 45 to 54 accounted for 30% of these respondents and the top reasons for displacement were loss of job and no affordable housing. Of personal conditions listed, issues with substance abuse was the most prevalent.
The following year, volunteers interviewed the same total number of unsheltered people, with 71 in Flagstaff, though the demographics had shifted. The most common age range was 35-44, at nearly 23% of respondents, and underemployment and inability to pay rent or mortgage were listed as the top reasons for displacement. For conditions experienced, chronic physical injury exceeded substance abuse cases by one person.
Both years, males made up about 70% of the surveyed population and about 40% of all respondents reported being without a home for more than three years. HUD’s official results of this year’s count should be released by April.
“There’s a misconception that people come up here in the summer and go to Phoenix in the winter and we see over and over that is not the case,” Altenbaugh said. “That is one of the cool things that the count shows: that these are our neighbors, these are people that are from Flagstaff, that have lived in Flagstaff their whole life.”
Though she said numbers have not decreased over time, they have not risen significantly, either.
“It’s a good thing,” Altenbaugh said. “It also tells the story of us getting better at the count. The better you are at counting, sometimes that means the more numbers you get.”
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at email@example.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.