story by Pamela Hill
A survey of Northwest Arkansas’s homeless that began Thursday (Jan. 31) will take a few days to process, but the results can have far-reaching effects, from the amount of federal housing dollars available to the quality of local care offered by charities and non-profit organizations.
“You have to have a reliable point-in-time count. It gives local providers information and it’s a critical part of the application when asking HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) for federal assistance,” said University of Arkansas sociology professor Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick.
Volunteers in 27 locations in Washington and Benton counties interviewed people who came to shelters to get out of the cold or to churches or other places where free meals are served to those in need.
The UA’s Community and Family Institute organized and carried out the Northwest Arkansas Point-in-Time Homeless Census, the fourth biennial count of the region’s homeless. While the numbers aren’t yet available, Fitzpatrick expects them to be up from the last count.
“Everybody I’ve talked to seems to think they’re serving more people,” said Fitzpatrick, the institute’s director, including the area’s schools.
Fitzpatrick said he has yet to review reports from all of Benton and Washington counties’ 13 school districts, but the ones he has reviewed show increases over the 2011 data. Information from the 2011 census showed that half of the homeless population – 1,000 of 2,001 people – were children in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“That, I think, is a good indication that if the number is up from schools, the general population is going to be up,” he said.
HUD and the UA institute use slightly different criteria to define homelessness, but information obtained by this week’s count will be useful for both. Fitzpatrick said additional questions asked for the institute’s survey will help point out gaps in service needs, medical and dental care, and prescription needs.
“It’s given service providers a whole new way of thinking about the clients they serve. We know now we have service gaps for clients. We know what they’re getting, what they’re not getting, but also what they need,” Fitzpatrick said. “We also know the chronic conditions of some homeless and whether they are receiving services for those (conditions).”
Fitzpatrick will release the survey findings when all the numbers have been totaled and survey questions assessed. But he said Friday (Feb. 1) that he may not put as much effort this time into publishing a comprehensive document for providers as he did in 2011.
“I feel like there are too few people who take the time to read it. I felt like it’s not being used,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think some providers just think they know their clients regardless.”
And although Fitzpatrick said the nature of homelessness has changed dramatically in the last five years, some providers don’t think the small details of the survey mattered much.
“We don’t use the data. We supply the data,” said Salvation Army area commander Major Tim Williford for the Northwest Arkansas Area Command. The survey results won’t change the Salvation Army’s services, he said.
As the temperature dipped to 12 degrees in Fayetteville overnight Thursday, the Salvation Army here sheltered 50 people Thursday night, although 18 of them are regular residents going through a 16-week rehabilitation program. The 32 extras filled the shelter’s 24 regular beds and eight of the overflow cots. The shelter can house 75 to 80 people during extreme conditions. But Williford said the area’s homeless don’t fill up that available space unless there are several days of extremely cold temperatures, such as occurred in the winter of 2010-2011.
“We’re here and we’re available. People know about us,” he said
Williford said many more people come for meals at the shelter than stay overnight. He said the numbers of homeless they see every day tends to hold steady.
Betty Phelps, a founder of the Community Meals outreach program of Central United Methodist Church, said she has noticed a drop in the number of people who come to the church’s tables on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Central fed 144 people on Tuesday and 134 on Thursday – not all of whom are homeless.
Phelps said the number is small, given they have had as many as 180 at the end of a month. More people come for the meals at the end of the month because many of them receive checks at the beginning of the month and are better able to provide for themselves until their money starts to run out.
“Our numbers have dropped. We have many regulars who have been with us for years. We also have many new people and they don’t always stay around,” Phelps said.
Fitzpatrick said “homeless” doesn’t always mean that someone has no place to stay, but rather has no permanent place to stay and no means to provide a stable home. Only 8 to 10% of Northwest Arkansas’s homeless population is “unsheltered,” meaning they’re living in the woods, camping, living in a car, or other outside place.