Covid-safety fears cancel counts of homeless in state

For the first time since its inception, the group responsible for counting Central Arkansas' homeless has asked the federal government to waive the biennial count's requirement to count the unsheltered population.

The Central Arkansas Team Care for the Homeless isn't alone. The Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care also won't count the population living in the streets, camps or other places not meant for human habitation.

Both groups will count those staying in emergency shelters, transitional shelters and other types of shelter for the unhoused. Continuums of care are nonprofit organizational groups that help coordinate services and count the homeless in regions of the state. Arkansas has four.

Organizers decided against the unsheltered count during the covid-19 pandemic "because we could not ensure the safety of the volunteers," said Lynn Hemphill, the Central Arkansas homeless count chairman and homeless program coordinator for Little Rock Veterans Affairs.

The two Arkansas organizations, which cover eight of the state's 75 counties but together had nearly 60% of the state's homeless population in 2019, are joining a slew of similar groups across the country that have opted to either adjust their schedules or forgo counting the unsheltered population.

A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development statement said 224, or 57%, of so-called "continuums of care" nationwide had requested some kind of exception to the 2021 count for unsheltered homelessness as of Thursday.

"HUD believes there are additional CoCs [continuums of care] that will either forgo an unsheltered homeless count or conduct a modified unsheltered homeless count," the statement says.

The federal agency recommended that continuums decrease the number of volunteers, decrease face-to-face interaction with clients, provide personal protective equipment for volunteers, and minimize close contact. Continuums also may be granted waivers that let them conduct only a head count or collect fewer data elements than required in the past.

Other continuums are taking alternate measures to prevent the spread of covid-19, such as extending the count's timeline, another allowance granted by HUD.

The full point-in-time count occurs every other year. Continuums report the numbers to HUD. During the years between full point-in-time counts, the continuums generally count only the population staying in shelters.

In 2019, HUD's full report from the count showed that there were 2,717 people experiencing homelessness in Arkansas.

The numbers are presented to Congress and used to better understand the needs of an area's homeless population. Service providers also include these numbers on grant applications.

In 2020, there may have been an uptick in the number of people experiencing homelessness because of the severe financial impact on many caused by the covid-19 pandemic, although a count may not reflect that increase, experts say. Many Arkansas service providers have reported more need; they've seen more people out on the streets or living in their cars in recent months.

The Arkansas Balance of State continuum, which encompasses 46 counties, is conducting the full count, but continuum President Sue Legal said she expects to see an under-count because of covid-19 limitations. The count is set for Thursday.

"I believe there's probably more homeless people due to the covid pandemic, but I think our count may not show that because we're not going to have the number of volunteers that we've had," she said.

In Hot Spring County, for example, most volunteers from past counts are over 65 and at higher risk for severe illness or death from covid-19, Legal added.

Officials and service providers in other areas of the state have also reported an increased need during the pandemic.

"They're seeing a lot more need this year," said Pam Hutcheson, the Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care executive director. Right now there's a lot of need for rental and utility assistance. There are also requests for food indicating a great deal of food insecurity.

"I will be curious to see how that [covid-19] affects our sheltered count," Hutcheson said.

The Northwest Arkansas continuum, which covers four counties, didn't have to submit a waiver because it performed a full count last year. Unlike most continuums, the Northwest Arkansas group usually conducts a full count every year, Hutcheson said.

Both the Northwest and Central Arkansas groups plan to forgo recruiting extra volunteers and having shelter staffers fill out forms for the count that record clients' demographic information such as age, sex, gender and race. Whenever possible, they'll fill out the forms electronically.

"We feel like it will be a successful count in that we've contacted all of the participating shelters and they're willing to help," Hemphill said.

He added that although the Central Arkansas group will miss a year of the unsheltered count, there are already nonprofits in the area that specifically cater to that population's needs. The group will also do a full count next year.

"We continue to work with the continuum and maintaining a database of unsheltered people," he said. "We recognize with the pandemic we have not been able to do the street outreach as we normally have but we are aware of where homeless people congregate and we do have resources."

The Northwest Arkansas continuum added a staff position in October for an "outreach navigator" who seeks out those experiencing homelessness who aren't staying at a shelter of some kind. The navigator helps find housing, food and other services for those staying in camps or on the street, Hutcheson said.

In Garland County, covered by the Arkansas Balance of State, volunteers will have an event designed to draw as many of the unsheltered homeless as possible to the Hot Springs Farmers Market.

They'll be offered flu shots and covid-19 testing as well as breakfast and a "survival kit" with items such as a blanket, face mask, flashlight and first aid kit, Legal said.

HUD offered a truncated version of the demographic information form included with the count, but Legal and her team decided to go ahead with the full version because they wanted details on chronic homelessness and veteran homelessness in their area, among other topics.

Volunteers have been offered N-95 masks for the count, she added.

"Our No. 1 [priority] is the safety of the volunteers and the homeless," Legal said.