Critical to HUD funding awarded to the region for housing and transitional services, the government-mandated count began at noon Wednesday on the streets and at homeless service agencies in eight area counties.
Anne Cooper, executive director of the Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness, said Wednesday teams of ARCH volunteers have been deployed to visit camps, shelters, day centers, feeding sites, bus stations, libraries and other places where homeless people are known to go.
An anonymous and voluntary survey requested of each person the volunteers encounter is used to gather demographic data, including the nature, duration and frequency of their homelessness, whether they are veterans and, most key to the point-in-time count, where they slept on the night of Jan. 23.
The volunteers are identifiable by red vests or neon green T-shirts bearing the ARCH logo, and will provide each person who completes the survey with a voucher for a care bag packed with socks, food, toiletry items and other goodies that can be picked up at the ARCH office at 312 W. Walnut St.
Cooper said the best way for the public to assist is to call the ARCH Care Line at 844-989-CARE (2273) if they see a person they believe is homeless.
In some cases, point-in-time surveys can be conducted by observation over the phone, Cooper said. Or in the event the person is a veteran, Veterans Affairs will send a VA staff member to find them and connect them with services.
Cooper discouraged anyone from visiting homeless camps, citing the inherent danger and saying, “We have teams that will do that.”
According to Cooper, the recent dismantling of homeless camps in Johnson City area that has occurred as result of the city’s ban on camping on public rights-of-way has impacted people who are unsheltered in the city, and will likely impact the demographics gathered in this year’s count.
“The dismantling of the camps certainly has impacted them. Being unsheltered is not easy and dismantling their camps has made it harder,” she said. “I suspect what is happening is that those in Johnson City who are getting their camps dismantled are going to Kingsport or Bristol. So it may be effective for the city achieving what it wants, but the problem is that the (HUD) continuum of care application specifically asks, ‘What have you done to decriminalize homelessness?’
“Last year, Sullivan County had more (homeless) than Washington County for the first time. So it will be interesting to see how all that impacts this survey,” Cooper said.
The 2018 point-in-time count found 360 individuals who were homeless in the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee, including 109 people who were unsheltered. Last year’s total compares to a total of 395 who were homeless here in 2017 and to more than 800 here when the coalition conducted its first point-in-time count in the region more that a decade ago.
Cooper said the decline is encouraging. “The number goes down every year, and that’s good. That’s what HUD wants to see because it shows that you have effective housing.”
ARCH asks anyone who sees person they suspect is homeless to call their care line. Veterans Affairs asks veterans who are homeless and unsheltered to call 423-979-2871 and give their location so VA staff may be sent to meet them.