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Survey to reach out to area’s homeless

By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Volunteers are ready to fan out over Denton and Denton County most of the day Thursday to survey those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

The biennial count helps local, state and federal officials, as well as nonprofits, know more about who is homeless and the services they need.

Since last fall, volunteers and employees from government and nonprofit groups have been meeting regularly to plan for the “point-in-time” count this week.

Carl Seiler, project coordinator for the Denton County Homeless Management Information Systems, said he thinks the group is well situated to reach a lot of people.

They are looking for changes in demographic information, since point-in-time counts typically reach only a portion of the homeless population.

“We count because we are trying to find out the scope and nature of the homeless in our community,” Seiler said. “We always caution that this is not time-series data.”

For example, in 2011, federal housing officials estimated that 576 Denton County residents were homeless, with 98 of them in Denton. During the point-in-time count that year, volunteers were able to survey 216 people, less than half the estimated homeless population.

In 2009, the survey count dipped to less than a third of the estimated population because of an ice storm the night before the event.

The surveys have found that more men than women are homeless in Denton and Denton County. Most of the people told the volunteers that unemployment or an inability to pay the rent or mortgage was the cause of their homelessness. However, divorce, domestic violence and other family issues were also listed frequently. In 2011, at the time of the last survey, people reported a median 279 days of homelessness.

Since 2005, federal officials have estimated Denton and Denton County’s rate of homelessness at 8.6 per 10,000. The estimate comes in part from the point-in-time surveys, Seiler said, but statisticians at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also use other measures to come up with the estimate.

Many people will be surveyed at Our Daily Bread soup kitchen at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, the Salvation Army and other locations that offer services to people who are homeless or facing housing challenges.

People who choose to forgo food or paying the utility bill to stay sheltered will be included in the survey, too, Seiler said.

Volunteers also will visit campsites in order to reach people who might not come in Thursday for services.

Many cities perform point-in-time counts at the end of January in order to meet a deadline with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. People are more likely to come in for shelter and services in January than in warmer months, and people are also more likely to reach out for help at the end of the month, when money is tight, Seiler said.

Some volunteers will conduct surveys on paper and others will take advantage of a new mobile app that allows them to enter information directly into the database from a smartphone or tablet computer, a move that should save time in creating the data reports, Seiler said.

Employees and volunteers with the Texas Homeless Network will take the data and prepare reports not only for the local community but also for state and federal officials, according to Eric Samuels, the networks’ director for continuum of care programs.

The network helps the 206 counties that don’t have large cities with staff able to do that work, Samuels said.

The state report is used primarily for advocacy, he said.

According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Texas is among the five states — along with California, New York, Florida and Georgia — that accounted for nearly half of the country’s homeless population in 2012.

“There is a huge gap in support of permanent, affordable housing,” Samuels said. “We’re closing the gap, but slowly — way too slowly.”

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her e-mail address is .