Mandated annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the count kicked off Thursday and will continue through noon today in Washington, Sullivan, Carter, Greene, Johnson, Unicoi, Hawkins and Hancock counties.
The Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness, HUD’s designated Continuum of Care organization for the region, is leading the count and has deployed its staff members and volunteers from many of the 70 local housing and human service agencies aligned through the coalition to shelters, public kitchens, day centers and other homeless service agencies as well as outdoor locations where homeless people are known to camp.
ARCH is also requesting anyone who is aware of a person in the region who is homeless or living in a place not meant for human habitation to call 928-2724 with information on where they can be located, counted and offered assistance.
Dr. Joy Drinnon, chair of the ARCH board of directors, emphasized the results of count are used to secure need-based grant funding for area homeless services and is critical to the mission to end chronic homelessness.
Michael Lewis, a case manager for ARCH, and Clarissa Bradley, an intern with the social work department at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home, interviewed approximately 40 homeless individuals at lunch and dinner at the Johnson City Salvation Army kitchen on Thursday and seven at the Johnson City Transit Station. In between, the two canvassed the city’s interstate and railroad underpasses, where they found about eight obvious camps but no people.
“We found their stuff — sleeping bags, blankets, flashlights, matches — but no one was there, like they had just left,” Lewis said. “What it was is, there’s no stretch of railroad with an underpass that doesn’t have someone living there.
“Until you see a camp, you don’t realize. But what concerned us was finding children’s toys in the camps. It’s one thing to live outside but to drag a child through that?”
Ironically, the Salvation Army’s 85 beds at the shelter for men, women and children were not full, even with Thursday’s daytime high temperature below freezing and the overnight low expected to dip into the low single digits.
Jim Stark at Salvation Army’s Center of Hope said while the shelter was near capacity and everyone was welcome to spend the day inside because of the dangerous temperatures, empty beds were available Wednesday night. The white flag flying outside Thursday signaled space would be made available even if the beds filled up that evening.
Wendy Ramsey, director of Supportive Housing for Kingsport Housing and Development, spent Thursday conducting surveys at the Johnson City Downtown Day Center on Fairview Avenue and will return to the center this morning.
While the center’s day room was at near capacity, Ramsey said most of those there had been surveyed at other sites earlier in the day.
A veteran of the annual count, Ramsey said the data gathered in past years shows about 85 percent of the region’s homeless population is in Washington County.
She said the Shelter Plus Care supportive housing program operated by Kingsport Housing is among the region’s HUD-funded programs and many of its referrals come from the VAMC, the Downtown Day Center operated by the College of Nursing at East Tennessee State University and Frontier Health’s larger offices in Johnson City.
“People gravitate to Washington County because of the services,” she said. “There’s a lot of generous work done here.”