Unsheltered: Counting the homeless on our streets
Imagine you stepped off a bus onto the sidewalk in New Richmond last Wednesday night, Jan. 23, around 11 p.m. It was your first time in the city. You didn't know anyone and your only family was hundreds of miles away which didn't matter anyway because you're not talking. Your cell phone ran out of juice days ago and you spent your last cash on the bus ticket and a burger along the way. It was 4 degrees above zero. You have a coat, a baseball cap and tennis shoes, no job, no car, no cash, no friends and no place to stay. You wonder how you arrived at this place, bad luck, bad choices, bad timing, probably some combination of all of them. It doesn't really matter because right now you are here. What do you do next? You start walking, parking lots, back alleys, parks, checking for unlocked doors, exhaust fans, a grocery store or a gas station open 24 hours, Walmart, a place to get warm. You are clever, you have done this before, there is always a way, make a friend for the night, tell a stranger a good story, tell him the truth, a couple bucks buys you a couple more hours, a cup of hot coffee, another chance.
On Wednesday, Jan. 23, Duana Bremer, Director of Grace Place, Salvation Army's transitional housing program in New Richmond, accompanied by Grace Place employee Stacey Feidt, climbed into Bremer's red mini van around 11 p.m. and set off on the Balance of State Continuum of Care Point in Time Count.
The count takes place on a single night twice a year, in January and July. Volunteers across Wisconsin's 72 counties in coordination with volunteers across the country spend the night counting the homeless who are either sheltered in a facility or unsheltered and living on the streets.
The purpose of the count is to provide a "snapshot" of what homelessness looks like in a neighborhood, city or state. The count is coordinated by the Wisconsin Balance of State Continuum of Care (WIBOSCOC). The data collected through the Point-in-Time count is reported in the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) that is provided to the U.S. Congress. Homeless information is also reported to the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development and is utilized to develop the Housing Inventory Chart for the Balance of State Continuum of Care.
This count is intended to include persons that are homeless and are living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, safe havens for the homeless, domestic violence shelters, or who are unsheltered living on the streets or any other place not meant for human habitation.
Bremer and Feidt began their search in the sprawling parking lot of Walmart driving slowly by cars parked on the fringes of the lot looking for signs of lives being lived in a car. Typically cars serving as homes are older and in rough shape. On a 4-degree evening, depending on whether the car had been running periodically, windows might be frosty.
Next stop was a slow pass through the well-lit, 24 hour lot at Kwik Trip, again looking for the oddly occupied car. Finding none, Bremer and Feidt moved on to Mary Park.
At the park, a physical search was conducted on foot of the restrooms, picnic shelters and band shell. No one was home. That was a good thing.
In climates like Wisconsin's, it is more likely to find people outside in the summer when it is warmer. In the winter, people try to stay with family or friends or find a shelter.
The last stop for Bremer and Feidt was the Lowrey Hotel. On the off chance that someone who did not know the Lowrey had been shut down this past summer, might try to squat there, they checked the doors and peered into windows flashlights in hand. Again they could find no one.
According to Bremer, searches had been conducted earlier in the day in surrounding communities including Baldwin and Roberts.
"We were made aware of a few different folks in various communities in Polk County. None of them were actually found. I do not have final numbers on who was found in any of the counties, but as far as I know, no one in Polk and no one in St. Croix," reported Grace Place Media and Fundraising Manager Angela Moulton.
Volunteers are armed with vouchers for local hotels and knowledge to connect people they find to local resources for food and shelter. Communities submit their counts for sheltered and unsheltered persons in each county to the WIBOSCOC. That data is used to determine if the services provided in the county are meeting the needs of those who are homeless.
According to the 2018 Count conducted in Wisconsin last January, of the 502 households considered to be homeless with children totaling 1,650 people, 836 were sheltered and 20 were unsheltered. Of the 17 households with children considered to be chronically homeless totaling 58 people, all 58 were sheltered.
Of the 1,453 households considered to be homeless without children totaling 1,493 people, 1,152 were sheltered, seven were in safe havens and 106 were unsheltered.
Of the 227 individuals considered chronically homeless, 209 were sheltered and 12 were unsheltered.
The reporter continued the search for another hour scouting out Super America followed by the restrooms at Hatfield Park and the tunnel under Highway 64. He ended the night with silent drives up and down rows of storage units at two different locations looking for signs of life and happy to find none. A last glance at the temperature on the dash read 2 degrees.
According to Moulton, as of Thursday morning, Jan. 24, 2019, Grace Place had 46 people in shelter with folks presenting themselves as homeless seeking shelter nearly every day.