Volunteers attempt to count area homeless population
by Laura Camper
lcamper@annistonstar.com
Jan 28, 2013 | 5864 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Old abandoned building in Anniston where homeless people have occupied from time to time. (Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)
Old abandoned building in Anniston where homeless people have occupied from time to time. (Photo by Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)
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Just before 11 a.m., Monday about a dozen volunteers gathered in the yard of the Anniston Soup Bowl, where about 125 meals are served each day.

The dining room wasn’t supposed to open until 11:30, but the volunteers came in advance to catch the people expected to show up for the free lunch offered to those in need. People started arriving, some walking, some driving, still others were dropped off at the building. Each one was greeted and asked if they would like to complete a survey. Soon all the volunteers were occupied.

“Where did you stay last night?” they asked. “Is that your home? Do you consider yourself as having a stable household?”

In the Anniston and Gadsden areas, Monday was the designated Point in Time Count mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Local agencies that serve the homeless are required to participate in the count, which is used to determine the number of homeless and their needs. The agencies belong to the Homeless Coalition of Northeast Alabama.

“We need demographic information,” said Rita Flegel, executive director of The Right Place, which organized the count in Anniston this year. “We also look at trends and how things are changing because that matters when we try to access services, when we apply for grants and when we speak to the community.”

The information gathered in the count is part of the formula that HUD uses to determine grant awards. The agencies are required to work together and the partnership in the homeless count is supposed to promote that collaboration, Flegel said.

Local school systems also collaborate with the agencies, said Becky Cox, homelessness liaison for Calhoun County Schools. The schools keep track of students who are homeless. School officials make accommodations for such students, including allowing them to remain in the schools they attended before they became homeless, Cox said. The accommodations are an effort to provide some stability in the students’ lives, Cox said.

The school system has 115 homeless students this year, Cox said, down from 235 last year.

“We had 77 students who were displaced because of those tornadoes,” Cox said. “Those students have since found housing.”

Different agencies have different measures of who is homeless. Schools abide by the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which counts students whose families are doubled up with another family member, or are living in a hotel or a shelter, Cox said. Those standards are different from HUD’s, Flegel said. HUD counts as homeless only those people living in places not intended for human habitation, she said. By that definition, there were only five homeless children in Calhoun County in the most recent count, those living in shelters, Cox added.

Several of the volunteers, many of them Jacksonville State University students, said volunteering for the survey challenged their ideas of homelessness. One volunteer thought that substance abuse would be more prevalent among the homeless. Another was surprised by the number of people who were working but were on the verge of homelessness. Another had thought homeless people had done something that caused them to become homeless.

“The larger population tends to forget that they’re people,” said Phillip Noble, who works at the Health Services Center and a second-year volunteer for the count.

The picture of homelessness that volunteers have in their heads is often quite different from reality, he said.

Steve, 43, who declined to give his last name, said he’s been homeless for 10 years. He calls his homelessness “traveling.” On Monday, Steve was at Interfaith Ministries of Calhoun County for the group’s Open Door program, which provides the use of showers, phones and computers to homeless residents twice a week.

Steve has bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, he said. His travels started when his grandmother, who raised him, passed away at 98. A resident of New Orleans, Steve followed a friend to Anniston, he said. He works when he can, but has a hard time keeping a job. It was his boss here in Anniston who eventually helped him get treatment for the disorders and now he receives disability payments at Interfaith Ministries, Steve said.

With his first disability check, Steve bought the van in which he now lives, he said.

“I’m 43 and I ain’t never had this opportunity,” Steve said. “Now that I have, I’m definitely going to use it wisely.”

But talk of renting an apartment or house still worries him, he said. He’s worried he wouldn’t be able to pay rent and utilities and maintain the home. He’s worried the stress will get to him.

“But at the same time, I don’t want to be out there when I get old,” Steve said. “I would like to get off the street, but I just don’t know how.”

The information gathered in the count should be available around the first week of March, Flegel said.

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.

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