Annual effort helps determine how much public and private funding communities obtain
Nikki Stanaitis got up incredibly early Thursday morning to lead a group of volunteers who explored Metro stations, 24-hour restaurants and even woods in downtown Silver Spring and White Oak.
The 4 a.m. sweep by volunteers was part of an annual effort to count and reach out to some of the more hardy homeless people who don’t seek emergency shelter on even the coldest sub-freezing nights. The count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and helps determine how much public and private funding communities obtain to work against homelessness.
“By doing this, you can see and understand how it’s hard work to be homeless and survive out there,” said Stanaitis, clinical program director with Interfaith Works. The Rockville-based nonprofit agency and coalition of more than 165 churches and congregations provides shelter, clothing, food and other services for the poor and homeless.
She works through the agency’s Community Vision program in Silver Spring, which provides an emergency seasonal shelter, as well as meals, showers, case management that can include referrals for mental health and substance abuse treatment, and vocational and other services.
“The better we do with the count, the better we can tackle the issue of homelessness,” Stanaitis said.
The volunteers count homeless people inside shelters, such as Interfaith’s emergency seasonal one in Silver Spring, and fan out early one morning each year to get a more accurate count of those who don’t stay in shelters.
About 80 volunteers on Thursday morning were in four areas of the county — Silver Spring/White Oak, Bethesda, Rockville-Olney and Gaithersburg-Germantown.
It’s important to get out there before 5 a.m., when people who sleep in Metro stations, 24-hour restaurants and other places tend to start moving around, said Kim Ball, homeless services administrator for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. The department and nonprofit Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless head the county’s “Zero: 2016 Campaign,” part of a national effort to end veteran and chronic homelessness in the next two years.
Besides Metro stations and restaurants like McDonald’s, volunteers checked parking garages, vehicles in mall lots, alleys, storage units, bus stops, under bridges and in woods. During last year’s early-morning count, a volunteer had to call 911 to help one person, but no such calls were made Thursday, Ball said.
People stay out in the cold for various reasons, including mental health issues and not doing well in groups, advocates said. Those in camps can have stoves, thermal blankets, thick sleeping bags, and layers of clothing to try to stay warm.
“It’s quite amazing they can survive out in this weather,” Ball said.
Last year, about 95 unsheltered persons were found throughout the county, down 34 percent from 2013, according to county figures. That was the lowest total by far in at least five years.
“It was colder this year and last year when we took the survey than in 2013, so we think this year will be around last year’s number” for the unsheltered homeless, Ball said.
All total, 891 homeless in Montgomery were counted last year, including 176 chronically homeless and 35 veterans. The total was an 11 percent decline from 2013.
Prince George’s County reported a 5 percent decrease to 654, while Fairfax County had a 9 percent drop to 1,225. The homeless in Washington, D.C., which lost affordable housing units and saw rents rise substantially, ballooned by 13 percent to almost 8,000.
Results for this year’s survey could be released by March.
Montgomery County and homeless groups have made greater efforts to increase housing options and get people in shelters or transitional housing, advocates said. The county also saw a reduction in chronically homeless single adults and homeless families. Officials attributed that to redesigning a grant program that assists families in getting stable housing from shelters and providing more permanent housing options.
Last March, the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless opened a shelter specifically for veterans. The county has three main family shelters and a domestic violence shelter that can house more families. There are two main shelters for single adults with seasonal emergency shelters available.
Hotels and motels also serve as overflow when shelters are at capacity, Ball said.
In Silver Spring and White Oak, 74 people were counted in the shelters and 20 unsheltered, Stanaitis said. A few people who slept outside came into breakfast at Interfaith Works later Thursday morning, and one person declined to be surveyed, she said.
Some 21 volunteers, including County Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park, participated in the Silver Spring effort. Other groups involved in the point-in-time surveys Thursday included Bethesda Cares and People Encouraging People.
“Having an accurate count allows us to determine the size and scope of aid the county needs to provide,” Levanthal said.
It’s important to build a rapport with homeless individuals to get them to come out of the cold and get other services such as vocational and counseling, Stanaitis said. Volunteers on Thursday made sure they asked for names, talked with people conversationally and tried to gauge how vulnerable they were to prioritize housing.
Last year, the county identified 159 “medically vulnerable” homeless, and advocates have found housing for many of them.
Some people find creative ways to sleep in public without drawing much notice, such as under bridges, in bank ATM lobbies and “places you wouldn’t even realize,” Stanaitis said. Some walk between 7-Eleven stores, McDonald’s restaurants, diners and public places all night.
“Many of them find it easier to sleep during the day,” she said.
Some residents have reported several tents in a wooded area around Georgia Avenue and 16th Street north of downtown Silver Spring. But those were recently cleared out, Stanaitis said.
“There are not as many woods here as there are upcounty, so we don’t face that situation as much,” she said.