More people who are experiencing homelessness in Alachua County are finding their way off the streets and into shelters.
The total homeless population saw a minor, 0.5 percent increase, from 2,091 people last year to 2,102 this year, according to preliminary numbers from the Alachua County 2015 Point-in-Time (PIT) count released Monday. The number of “unsheltered homeless” dropped from 617 to 553, while the number of “sheltered homeless” rose from 902 to 1,001. These are 10 and 11 percent changes respectively.
“The street count went down quite a bit, so there has been some impact on the number of people actually living on the street,” said Theresa Lowe, executive director of the North Central Florida Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry.
“I don’t know if we can take credit for that or not, but we can certainly try,” she joked.
While surveyors came across numerous tents at the remains of the former “Tent City,” located off Hawthorne Trail, during the count, they found many were unoccupied.
“We can’t count tents, just people,” Lowe said.
The PIT count is conducted every year in Alachua county to determine the number of “sheltered homeless,” who live in transitional housing or homeless shelters, and “unsheltered homeless,” who live in areas not meant for human habitation.
Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said while the PIT count is imperfect, it’s the best that can be done in one day.
“It doesn’t catch everybody, but it gives a snapshot,” Stoops said.
This year’s count, conducted on Jan. 22, was the first one held in Grace Marketplace. The shelter, which opened its doors in May, is a collaborative initiative between the City of Gainesville and Alachua County to provide a one-stop setting for homeless services.
Lowe said more time would be needed before any conclusions could be made about Grace Marketplace’s impact.
By 5:30 a.m., 14 volunteers set out around Alachua County to begin the count, starting with the labor pools.
Half the volunteers came from organizations such as the Veterans Administration and Meridian Behavioral Healthcare. The other half was composed of homeless volunteers who earned $10 per hour, in addition to receiving lunch money, enabling them to stay out for most of the day.
The count targeted areas where the homeless are known to congregate, including downtown Gainesville, Williston Road and underpasses along Interstate 75, Lowe said.
Some volunteers walked the same area three or four times to ensure everyone was accounted for.
Lowe said the same homeless volunteers participate year after year, and they’re happy to do so, despite the long hours.
“They’re hardcore,” she said.
The count serves to determine how many sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons reside in the county. Demographic information such as the number of families and health conditions is also gathered to better plan services for the homeless community.
The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) mandates its Continuums of Care — local bodies that plan housing and services for the homeless — perform the count in order to receive federal funding.
HUD funding could increase to reward organizations for reducing homelessness or to bolster organizations facing a rise in homelessness, Lowe said.
She said she doesn’t expect this year’s count to affect funding because the homeless population didn’t increase or decrease significantly.
Grace Marketplace began with an original allocation of $308,000 a year between City of Gainesville and Alachua County funds.
While the services grew, the funding did not. Lowe said they were recently able to renegotiate for an additional $250,000 for the fiscal year. However, she said the shelter, which has 56 beds under the pavilion and 22 in the dormitories, is crowded, and more staff would need to be hired to accommodate more residents.
Taylor Savage, a community volunteer, has been in social work for the past nine years and has been involved in the count four times in the past six years.
She said, wearing a dual hat as a recovering alcoholic and as a social worker, she can relate to many homeless who also struggle with substance abuse.
A recurring theme she noticed while conducting the survey was many of the homeless had old felonies on their records that made it hard for them to find a job. She said this was true across race and gender. While some were violent, most were not, Savage said.
Stoops said while there are some ex-offenders who are a part of the homeless population, they are not a significant proportion.
“[The count] is a necessary evil,” Savage said. “It’s intrusive. We’re asking people to sit down and talk about a really hard time and we really need this information. It’s important.”