Officials say variety of programs aiming to reverse number permanently
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
The teams of more than 100 volunteers had a daunting, annual task on Jan. 29: locating the homeless, a population that often prefers to stay in the shadows.
But this year’s Chester County Point-in-Time Count, a federal initiative that played out across the country on the same date, included a sobering reality: During the night’s single-digit temperatures, the tent cities and makeshift shacks that some call home could have easily turned into coffins.
What the searchers found, according to county officials, was that although some of the more dangerous temporary abodes were not occupied that night, the number of homeless in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation rose by nearly 60 from a year earlier. The 2014 count identified 684 residents without permanent, appropriate shelter – a number that includes those in emergency shelters and transitional housing; the 2013 figure was 625.
County officials presented those results on Thursday, March 6, to about 50 service-providers and volunteers. They said they were not surprised by the increase; in fact, they suspect the real number is even higher and are constantly exploring new ways to find and identify those in need. The good news, they said, is that resources have improved, and the county is handling the problem more effectively.
Decades to Doorways, the county’s ambitious 10-year plan for getting people into permanent housing as quickly as possible and intervening before homelessness occurs, is making inroads, said Michael Hackman, the program’s administrator. Studies have shown that focusing on permanency with appropriate supportive services is more cost-effective than keeping people in shelters. Achieving that goal requires the kind of collaboration that has started to occur, Hackman said.
One example of improved efficiency is Chester County’s Homeless Coordinated Assessment System, “ConnectPoints,” which features contact numbers, including a website address and a toll-free number, for anyone seeking emergency shelter or housing services in the county. The system cuts through bureaucracy by giving callers information about all available services, said Heather N. Charboneau, who runs ConnectPoints. Previously, no one resource had connections to multiple service providers, she said.
Charboneau said in the last six months of 2013, ConnectPoints logged 7,664 calls. She said some involved the same case, estimating that about 3,000 people reached out for services. Patrick Bokovitz, the county’s Department of Community Development (DCD) director, said the volume of calls helps illuminate the scope of the problem, which a number of county programs are now addressing.
In addition to a one-stop hotline for emergency shelter, ConnectPoints also provides information on a variety of other services, such as a Chester County Housing Locator Program (484-999-6946); Job Locator Services (610-384-9393), which are provided through the county’s Pennsylvania CareerLink system; and a new Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, which offers a host of programs for veterans in need.
Sarah Trently, an AmeriCorp Vista volunteer who ran the county’s Point-in-Time Count this year, said that despite the herculean efforts of volunteers, she believes that officials still haven’t reached all of the homeless sub-groups. For example, she said the county worked with three youth centers to determine the number of young people on their own, and 14 self-identified as homeless. “I’m certain that there’s more,” she said.
Trently said the bitterly cold weather the night of Jan. 29 likely enabled some homeless who typically stay outdoors to get temporary shelter; the 21 teams of volunteers who fanned across the county found evidence of recent habitation in a number of unfit places. “Anywhere you wouldn’t want to stay is where people are staying,” she said.
She said she thought one volunteer captured the Point in Time experience poignantly in a follow-up survey: “I remember thinking about how freezing cold I was, and then realizing that I was only out in this temporarily. People could have died that night, it was so cold,” the volunteer wrote.
County officials say preventing that outcome is a priority, and they urge residents who encounter anyone in unstable living conditions to refer them to ConnectPoints at 1-800-935-3181 or www.connectpoints.org. Residents can also assist by becoming familiar with the problem and volunteering, county officials said. For more information on Decades to Doorways, visit www.decadetodoorways.com.