Erie homeless census assisted by MU students

Rebecca Dunphy, Staff writer

The end of January brought brutally cold temperatures, heavy snow storms and white-out conditions, leading Lakers to take to their apartments and residence halls to avoid the winter weather. Unfortunately, not all members of the Erie community are this lucky, with the homeless population especially susceptible to these potentially dangerous conditions.

The need to learn about the homeless of the community and provide supportive services is what prompted the Single Point in Time Count, an annual survey that collects data on the homeless population, specifically regarding demographics, previous places persons have stayed, veteran status and other census topics.

As mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the census is a requirement of any community receiving funding for emergency shelters and transitional housing.

Though designated to occur in the last 10 days of January, this year’s survey was postponed from its scheduled date of Jan. 25 to Feb. 1 due to the Erie mayor’s declaration of a snow emergency.
“Unfortunately, there are many individuals and families throughout our community that have no safe and stable housing,” George Fickenworth, assistant director of the Mercyhurst Civic Institute.

“Many reside on the streets or take short-term residence in emergency shelters or transitional housing, and most are in need of supportive services. Many of these persons are out of sight and often forgotten about.”

For the third year in a row, the Erie County Department of Human Services contracted the Mercyhurst Civic Institute to facilitate the survey for the Erie County Home Team Homeless and Housing Coalition.

Volunteers from Erie Veterans Affairs, Erie United Methodist Alliance, Erie County Department of Human Services and the Housing Department all assisted in this year’s survey. Members of the Mercyhurst community also donated their time, including students in the Social Determinants of Health class taught by Maria Torres, Ph.D., and Adam Saeler, Ph.D., from the Criminal Justice Department.

From 9 p.m. to 4 a.m., teams take to the streets to gather a “Street Count,” or unsheltered count, focused on those who live on the streets. These efforts are focused on “known locations” that have been identified as commonly occupied by homeless persons.

Data is collected by interview, if they agree, or an observation form.

In addition to the forms, volunteers are also sent out with food, clothing, first-aid materials and information cards on how to obtain help.

Luckily, only a limited number of people have been found on the streets over the last few years because of the prevalence of emergency shelters and short-term housing programs such as Our Neighbors Place and the Warming Center.

This leads to the second part of the census: the Sheltered Count. After the initial count date, local agencies and providers of bed space identify their count for the evening and enter client information into the Homeless Management Information System.

This step identifies the largest portion of the homeless population.

Though the census proves to be greatly influential, especially in gauging the needs of the homeless community, the most difficult part of this project is finding volunteers.

“It is definitely a challenge to recruit individuals to volunteer for a count of the homeless that is mandated to take place in January,” Saeler said. “Who would want to go out at night in January in Erie if they don’t have to? That is the issue though, as many of those without shelter do not have the option and that is why it is so important to have volunteers because the count is tied to federal funding.”