Preparations for the annual Point in Time Count of Flagstaff's homeless are already underway as the new year draws closer.
The count, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 22, is an invaluable source of data on the local situation when it comes to Coconino County’s homeless community, said Ross Altenbaugh, executive director of Flagstaff Shelter Services.
Under the direction of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, local and state agencies across the country organize a mass effort to count and survey as many members of the homeless population in an effort to gather as complete a picture of the population as possible. They also use the opportunity to conduct surveys of the homeless population.
“Every year we do the count, we get better,” Altenbaugh said, noting that they are able to get more volunteers to help.
Altenbaugh said that with the gathered data they are better able to identify the kinds of programs that will be most impactful. Having a more complete a picture of the homeless can also help them better build their case when trying to get federal or state funding.
And when it comes to getting an idea of the homelessness in Coconino County, the last count this past January was one of the most successful, David Bridge of the Arizona Department of Housing told the Flagstaff City Council last week.
“This year, in 2018, was probably the best count we’ve ever done in the state,” Bridge said. He added that this was mostly because of the high number of volunteers who participated, especially in Coconino County.
The 2018 count was far more useful than 2017's, Bridge said, although that might be due to a number of factors.
A snowstorm on Jan. 23, when the 2017 count took place, meant the number showed a skewed picture of what the county’s homeless population looked like as local service providers worked hard to get as many people into shelters as possible.
This year, the count showed the homeless population at 415 people in Coconino County. The vast majority of those counted, however, about 86 percent, were in the Flagstaff area.
Of those counted, 118 were found outside shelters and 297 were in shelters.
“Almost two thirds or three fourths of your population is sheltered which means they’re being engaged; they’re part of programs.” Bridge said. “That’s hugely different from the balance of a lot of our state communities, let alone nationally.”
Of those not in shelters, 68 were single people and 50 were divided into nine families. For 40 of those surveyed, it was only their first year of homelessness and 21 percent of those surveyed were employed.
The count also measures the number of people in long-term housing programs. The count showed 382 people in long-term housing, up from 252 from 2017.
But Bridge pointed to this data as an example of how the numbers can show where improvement is needed.
While Native Americans make up about half of homeless people in Coconino County, and a substantial number of those in temporary shelters, that demographic is lightly represented among those in long-term housing programs. Because of this, Bridge said, local agencies might want to look at working with tribal governments for solutions.
White men are the second-largest proportion of the homeless population and Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans questions if there are potential solutions that could better help that population.
“One of the challenges we have is HUD [will often] say, ‘prioritize veterans,’ and we put all our resources into veterans and then they say ‘prioritize chronically homeless individuals,’ so we prioritize them and then they say ‘prioritize families,’” Bridge said. “But at some point, there are people who don’t fit those categories but are still hard to serve.”
In addition, council again discussed the possibility of either creating infrastructure or changing city code to allow people to sleep in their vehicles.
The possibility first surfaced during an August council meeting.
At the moment, city code does allow people to sleep in their vehicles for one night if they are on private property, such as a parking lot, and if the owner gives consent. In residential areas, the limit is five nights.
But the number of those living out of their vehicles may be far lower than other groups, with the last count showing only 12 such individuals in Coconino County.
Council was presented with two directions other cities have taken, in either setting up a designated area with infrastructure dedicated to supporting those living out of their vehicles or changing city code to allow those living in vehicles to park on certain city streets.
In the end, council decided against moving in either direction.