story by Pamela Hill
Single, white, middle-aged men account for the majority of homeless people in Northwest Arkansas, according to a recent census, but women with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.
Findings from the 2013 Northwest Arkansas Point-in-Time Homeless Census, conducted by the University of Arkansas’s Community and Family Institute, were released Thursday, two weeks after the Jan. 31 count was made. It was the fourth biennial count of the region’s homeless.
Some 63% of the area’s homeless are male, 80% are white, 66% are single, and the median age is 43 years old, mirroring the 2011 demographic profile.
Two-thirds were single, a slight increase from the earlier census. The number of adults who said they were either a single parent or part of a two-parent family with children declined from 26% in 2011 to 20% this year. However, that number reflects only those people personally interviewed during the census taking.
The general population of Northwest Arkansas has grown at 6.5% while the homeless population grew 42% between 2007 and 2011, according to the biennial censuses.
“If you look at the numbers of ‘invisible’ parents – as reported in the school numbers – that number is overwhelming,” said UA sociology professor Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick, director of the Community and Family Institute. The increase in women with children is not unique to Northwest Arkansas. “I think that if you look at the statistics nationwide, most places are experiencing that kind of shift,” he said.
The “invisible” parents to which Fitzpatrick referred comes from data reported by Washington and Benton counties’ 14 public school districts. Some three-fourths of those students listed as homeless are doubled-up with friends or relatives. Because those students have temporary shelter in others’ homes, they’re not readily seen by other citizens as homeless.
They also are harder to identify and count than someone living in a shelter or on the streets and are sometimes called the “invisible homeless.” The homeless census took those students into account, and added one parent for every two children, except for the 34 children who were reported as “unaccompanied.” Those unaccompanied students reported living without a parent or guardian.
About half of the area’s homeless population is enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. Schools in the two counties reported 1,175 students as homeless. Bentonville schools had the highest number of homeless students with 294. The Fayetteville School District logged the second-highest number with 192 homeless students.
“As the country slowly recovers from the the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression, the number of homeless in Northwest Arkansas increased from an estimated 2,001 in 2011 to 2,429 (18% increase) in 2013. The rise is alarming, but not surprising as service providers throughout the region continue to report record numbers of persons being served,” the census report says.
FIRST TIME HOMELESS
Thirty-five percent of the homeless interviewed in January said they lived in emergency or transitional shelters. Those are the people who are easiest to identify as homeless.
“Roughly one-quarter of all adults interviewed said they were doubling up with friends/relative; this invisible homeless has in part been the carry-over from an economic crisis that continues to have a profound impact on the American family. This group of ‘invisible’ homeless continues to be both an enigma and challenge to service providers in the region and throughout the country,” the report states.
In another sharp shift, more and more homeless people – about 75% – reported being homeless for the first time, rather than part of the chronically homeless population.
“I think it would correlate with us not being out of the woods yet with our economy,” said Jon Woodward, executive director of 7Hills Homeless Shelter. “The job market for those who don’t have vendor-type or Walmart-oriented skills can be a tough job market. It’s not a case of being generationally impoverished. … It really suggests it’s a new face of homelessness in our region.”
In 2007, more than half the people interviewed, 52%, said that was not the first time they had been homeless. This year, only 25% reported being homeless multiple times within the past three years.
MENTAL, PHYSICAL ISSUES
Fitzpatrick previously said many people moved to the region by the lure of good jobs, but when the economy crashed a few years ago, many of those people lost their homes and jobs. Many have stayed in the area trying to recover, he said.
Some 73% of the homeless people interviewed in January reported suffering from at least one of five conditions the Department of Housing and Urban Development says contribute to chronic homelessness: substance abuse, mental illness, physical disability, domestic violence and developmental disability.
Those reporting substance abuse declined sharply, from 43% in 2011 to 25% this year. But the number of homeless who self-reported suffering from mental illness jumped from 28% to 46%.
Woodward said that increase is no surprise to those who work with the homeless or to mental health providers in the region.
“There are so many cuts to funding for adults. They (mental health providers) are doing the best they can with the resources available. There have been across the board cuts to adult mental health,” Woodward said.
Physical disabilities were reported by 33% of those interviewed, an increase of 6% from 2011 when only 27% listed that as a problem.
Those reporting domestic violence declined from 15% in 2011 to 12% this year. The number with developmental disabilities dropped even more, from 9% to 4%.
TRANSPORTATION, MEDICAL SUPPORT
About 20% said they need help with transportation and medical assistance, 18% see a greater need for first aid services, 26% want more housing placement services, and 23% need help making a deposit for housing or services. However, the percentage of homeless who need the services is lower than it was in 2009 and 2011.
But Woodward said that statistic is misleading. The overall percentage may be down, but the numbers being served are greater. For instance, Woodward said when he first came to 7Hills in 2007, the organization served 645 people. Last year, it served 3,900 people.
“It’s a challenge to keep up with the growing need. Growth has outstripped our ability to keep up with it,” Woodward said.
Julie Bachmayer, social worker for the Bentonville School District, said more options for job assistance and transportation would benefit the homeless families she works with. Transportation also is vital for medical visits, or to attend necessary treatment or therapy for families dealing with substance abuse, one reason many families find themselves homeless.
About 78% of the respondents said they needed medical care, while 67% said they had received medical care. However, the disparity between the need for dental care and receiving it was much greater, 62% to 16%, respectively.
Woodward stressed the importance of the homeless census and said most of the new services resulted from the census data and the service gaps it has revealed over the years. He urged continued support for non-profits that deal with the homeless population.
“I think the community has a responsibility to support those centers because the need is growing,” Woodward said. He also encouraged people with professional skills, especially in counseling and mental health services, with a heart to help the homeless to volunteer.