Each year communities across the nation participate in the Point in Time Count during the last 10 days in January. They’re trying to take a snapshot of homelessness by asking how many people slept on the streets or in shelters during one specific night. But the count only shows part of the picture.
At about 6 am on a Wednesday morning on the streets near the Brother Francis Shelter, Monica Stoesser walks up to a group of people shivering on the sidewalk.
“We’re doing a survey of people who are utilizing homeless services to collect some information,” she tells them. “So that we can better help serve people who need some assistance.”
Rebecca Paulson agrees to participate.
“So do you mind if I ask where you slept last night?” Stoesser says.
“At sleep off,” Paulson replies, referring to the area of the Anchorage jail where people who are intoxicated are taken to sleep off the alcohol in their system.
Stoesser scratches the pen on the long survey sheet. “Oh! This pen might not be working either.”
Stoesser’s pen, like the three others she’s tried, is frozen. Temperatures dropped to about one degree over night. She’s trying to complete the mandatory annual Point in Time Count. She wants to know things like if a person is a veteran and what resources they’ve used recently.
The data helps the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) get an idea of how many people are living on the streets. HUD officials say the count has some influence on how much funding different organizations receive, though they use other data as well. They host the count in January because it’s cold, and people who have no other resources, like friends or relatives, are more likely to reach out to different service providers.
Paulson has been living on the streets for about four years. She says she used to have a full-time job, and when she became homeless, she had no idea what resources were available to her.
“And it was very hard. I’d go two weeks without a shower. Doing what I can to keep clean, you know? Go to the library, use the bathroom, wash my face, clean up what I can.”
Paulson says she uses some services, like free showers and soup kitchens, but not others. She knows it’s up to her to follow up with organizations for substance abuse treatment and help searching for a job. She says the experience is humbling.
“I’ll be walking down the street, and some people won’t look you in the eye at all. You don’t feel human, you know…”
After getting some pencils, the survey group heads up a hill to a couple of tents perched on a narrow ledge by a chain link fence.
Robert, who didn’t want to give his last name, emerges from a large tent tucked in a far corner, his brown curly hair ruffled from a night of sleep. He’s using his friend’s tent because he’s not allowed at Brother Francis Shelter for three days. He had a misunderstanding over chore duties. It’s his third time being homeless in six years.
The young man says the common stories told about homelessness are only part of the picture.
“And then you got a lot of people saying everyone’s addicts or everyone’s drinking. It’s not true. They think we’re all one big group of monstrosities. But some of us are actually out here trying to get out of this mess.”
Robert puffs on a cigar as he says he’s applied for hundreds of jobs online and in person. He was a dishwasher and a janitor for years before his bosses sold the business and he lost his job. But he says it’s hard to get work when you don’t have a home, and people won’t pay attention to your application.
“We get discouraged. It’s like, if people would just give us a chance to prove ourselves, it would be different.” He pauses. “It’s proving ourselves, like giving us one day of work, just one so, we can show what we’re capable of.”
Later in the day and through out the rest of the week, a group from the youth shelter, Covenant House, walks around town looking for young people. Josh Louwerse says they’re having trouble getting kids to take the survey this year.
“I think kids just don’t like surveys. Which honestly, I think is a good thing because they aren’t willing to just give out their information readily.”
Louwerse says the Point In Time Count doesn’t get an accurate picture of youth experiencing homelessness because it doesn’t count people who are couch surfing with friends or even strangers. And he says it’s often hard to identify homeless youth because they don’t want to be identified.
“So we have, you know, two thousand kids that are homeless in the school district, and they go to school everyday and they want to go to school everyday. And they don’t want their peers to know that they’re homeless. So they work as hard as they can to come to school and have different clothes and try to be ready to go. High school is tough enough, so if you don’t have a good home situation you can kind of get isolated.”
Louwerse says Covenant House reached out to 1,800 at risk or homeless youth last year. But he says the solution for ending homelessness can’t just come from the services participating in the count.
“Youth get to us because they’ve lost their community. They’ve burned bridges, or they just didn’t have a good one to start with. And so part of making things better will look like us as a community coming around. All of us.”
Data from this year’s count will be released later this year. In 2014,organizations counted 1,785 people experiencing homelessness.