Volunteers help count Maine’s homeless

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LEWISTON — The day was wet and gloomy, but the mission was vital. On the surface, it was simple: Find homeless people across the state and count them as part of a mandatory yearly census.

For the dozens of volunteers who were out searching, it was more than a numbers game.

“The whole idea isn’t just to count people,” said Jerry DeWitt, who works with veterans at Tri-County Mental Health Services. “The idea is to identify these homeless people and ask them if they want some help.”

Federal rules mandate that the count has to be done on Jan. 30. It’s a national effort known as the annual Point in Time Survey.

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DeWitt and teams of veterans across the state got a head start. Although the counting took place Wednesday, they’ve been out searching homeless enclaves for days and trying to entice them into churches and missions with soup and sandwiches. They want to get a count, yes. But they also want to help.

“It’s frustrating,” DeWitt said. “It’s frustrating because people are out on the street. The shelters are booked up. These people have to stand in line, and then what happens if they can’t get a bed?”

By Wednesday afternoon, DeWitt and his team had found at least a dozen homeless people. Among them was a woman who had been homeless for four years.

“That,” DeWitt said, “is ridiculous.”

A man and his fiancee also called to ask for help. And there were others. Many heard about the statewide effort through fliers that were tacked up across the state. The homeless are asked to provide information about themselves, and they are offered assistance through a number of federal and state programs.

The Point in Time Survey is meant to provide a snapshot of Maine’s homeless population on a single night. Last year’s effort showed that more than 1,000 people were homeless on the day of the survey. But that figure did not represent the total number of people who are homeless in a year, said Deborah Turcotte, public information manager at the Maine State Housing Authority. The homeless population is counted by the number of bed nights spent at homeless shelters. In 2011, 7,725 individuals spent a combined total of 304,524 bed nights at shelters.

Of course, many of the homeless cannot be found or counted. And if they can’t be found, they can’t be helped.

In Durham, Larry Charest spent the day asking around. He asked at the Post Office, at the Fire Department and other places around town.

“Nobody knew about any homeless here,” Charest said.

Frustrating. But with 51 volunteers across Franklin, Oxford and Androscoggin counties, a lot of ground could be covered. Veterans’ groups, individuals and organizations were pitching in, including Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston and American Legion posts. Some see the homeless every day. Others had to go out and search, and in Maine, there is a lot of searching to be done.

Locally, the homeless are known to hang out in makeshift camps by the Little Androscoggin River in Auburn and in the woods near the Androscoggin River in Lewiston. They set up tents made of muddy tarps in the woods near Riverside Cemetery and farther up, near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge. The more people who can search, the more homeless that can be found, counted and offered help.

“The volunteers have all been trained and coordinated,” Turcotte said. “And it is so appreciated.”

Lewiston’s New Beginnings, an outreach agency for homeless teens, also participated in the survey, along with similar shelters across the state.

The Maine State Housing Authority is coordinating the efforts among homeless shelters, outreach groups and volunteers. Data collected Wednesday night by these groups will be sent to MSHA, where it will be added to the Homeless Management Information System and analyzed for a better understanding of Maine’s homeless population. The annual census is required of all states at this time each year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The information “facilitates the gaps and needs component of a complex federal formula by which HUD allocates funds for programs intended to end homelessness,” according to MSHA literature. The information also is used by service providers, particularly the state’s two Continuums of Care, the Statewide Homeless Council and regional homeless councils, to plan programs that address which resources are needed in their communities to prevent and end homelessness.

By late in the day Wednesday, numbers were still coming in. DeWitt was working the phones, waiting to hear from the volunteers and from any of the homeless who wanted help. He can be reached at 783-4663.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, just after dark, steady drizzle had turned into something more significant. It was raining across the region and the temperatures were dropping. An unpleasant night to be out, although not as deadly as the recent cold snap.

At Hope Haven Gospel Mission on Lincoln Street in Lewiston, the crowd was big. Supper had been served and people were being registered. As they waited, they sat down and had cookies with coffee or gathered in small groups outside. Two newcomers had checked in, which meant there were no more available beds for men. All 15 were filled, as they so often are. No one was surprised. Beds fill up fast in the winter.

The survey will officially be over by the end of the day. But to DeWitt and many of the others, Wednesday was just another day in the long, difficult effort to find the homeless and to assist them in any way possible.

“If I can help just one,” DeWitt said, “I’m happy.”

mlaflamme@sunjournal.com

For more information about the Point in Time Survey, including last year’s figures and a list of programs and services, visit mainehousing.org

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