LEWISTON — A group trying to help homeless people — and veterans in particular — is looking for volunteers in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties to spend a few hours searching for and counting them.
The teams are being formed now. Instruction is planned for December. And on Jan. 30, 2013, two-person teams plan to search in every city, town, township and plantation in the region.
"The more people we have, the more chance we'll have to find the homeless," Rich Oberg, a team leader with the Maine Military and Community Network, said. The three counties have a combined 75 municipalities.
"My biggest concern is that if we don't get help from officials, there's no way to find them," Oberg said. "There's too much territory to cover in this state."
The effort grew out of a nationwide count administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The count is used by the federal agency to help set the level of funding for the state.
Typically, groups contact shelters for a count. But there is growing concern that too many people are going uncounted. There is also worry that a high number of the forgotten are veterans.
Last year, volunteers in York County performed a count and found 51 homeless people, 18 of whom were veterans, Oberg said. Veterans are specifically targeted for help, because there are extra services available for them through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Jerry DeWitt, a Vista volunteer who works with veterans at Tri-County Mental Health Service, helped on last year's count. His job was searching for homeless people in Kennebunk.
Part of the search includes talking with police, game wardens, and people at general assistance offices, soup kitchens and shelters. Another part of the job is going to places where homeless people may be biding their time, from a Laundromat or supermarket to an alley or a hidden patch of trees.
"You just have to go into the stores and ask people," said DeWitt, a veteran. "We've got to get out of our office."
He and Oberg are coordinating the searchers.
"We don't send anybody out there by themselves," DeWitt said.
So far, they have four people signed on as volunteers, not only to search but also to receive about an hour of instruction from Maine housing officials.
The federal government has a long list of restrictions on who may be counted as homeless.
For instance, someone who lives in a tent in winter can be included in the count. However, they don't count in the summer, even if they have no other home but a tent, Oberg said.
The federal government is also particular about counting people as homeless even if they are staying on friends' couches, DeWitt said.
When people are discovered, the searchers will work to give people the information they need to find help. Such help might be a nearby shelter or soup kitchen.
For veterans, VA caseworkers can help. One works at the Community-Based Outreach Clinic in Lewiston.
Neither DeWitt nor Oberg know how many people they may find. Oberg worries that groups of homeless people could be living in the woods outside a small town. They may need help but survive too far off the grid to be noticed.
DeWitt said he is confident that people will be helped if enough volunteers agree to spend a few hours and search.
Anyone in Androscoggin, Oxford or Franklin counties who wishes to help may call DeWitt at (207) 783-4663, ext. 228.
"If we just find one person in each county, we will have helped," DeWitt said.