Regional organizations, volunteers count residents experiencing homelessness in Northwest Arkansas

Pastor Jody Farrell walks among cots in a cold weather shelter Thursday Dec. 22, 2022 at Genesis Church in Fayetteville. The church partners with Seven Hills Homeless Center, the Salvation Army, New Beginnings, the city of Fayetteville, and the Continuum of Care to provide the cold weather shelter.(File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)
Pastor Jody Farrell walks among cots in a cold weather shelter Thursday Dec. 22, 2022 at Genesis Church in Fayetteville. The church partners with Seven Hills Homeless Center, the Salvation Army, New Beginnings, the city of Fayetteville, and the Continuum of Care to provide the cold weather shelter.(File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Each person counted in an annual survey of residents experiencing homelessness has a story to tell.

Northwest Arkansas service providers and volunteers spent Friday counting as many residents experiencing homelessness as they could as part of a national annual survey known as the Point in Time count.

The count takes a 24-hour snapshot of homelessness in the United States. Local continuums of care are created by the federal government as part of a national program. They are required to do the count at least every other year and report the findings to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care spearheads the local count every year, including off years, to keep a better idea of how many people in the region are facing barriers to housing, Executive Director Debbie Martin said. The continuum compares the Point in Time numbers to other data it collects, such as its by-name list of residents experiencing homelessness and annual Housing Inventory Count, which also is required by HUD, she said.

The continuum partnered with the School of Social Work at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville this year to coordinate about 50 volunteers and staff members with partner organizations to do the count in Washington, Benton, Carroll and Madison counties. Unsheltered and temporarily sheltered people are included in the count. Surveyors fan out to shelters, supportive housing centers, churches, camp sites and anywhere else people without permanent housing may congregate.

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Many adults surveyed said they suffer from serious mental illness or trauma, making it difficult for them to maintain housing or employment, according to the continuum. Surveyors tread lightly when asking questions, Martin said.

"We want to make sure when we do this, we're being really sensitive to their needs," she said. "We never make someone answer our surveys."

'It can happen to anybody'

Volunteers use tablet computers to administer surveys using software developed by the university's School of Social Work. The questions go in sequence according to answers to previous questions, and the tablets can work without Wi-Fi, removing the hassle of keeping paper records and inputting the data manually, Martin said.

Partner organizations such as 7Hills Homeless Center and the Salvation Army have spent the last few weeks prepping staff members and volunteers and letting clients know the count is coming, she said. The continuum will have a week to sort through the data and take care of any discrepancies or issues before reporting to the federal government. The data is automated and will be available by then, Martin said.

Survey questions include how long and how many times a person was homeless over the year, where the person slept the night before, military experience and biographical information such as race, ethnicity and gender. More sensitive questions touch on alcohol and drug use, psychiatric or emotional conditions and physical disabilities. The questions are voluntary and the surveys collect initials, rather than names.

Charlie Birchfield, 57, is a resident at New Beginnings, a transitional housing community located just south of 7Hills. Originally from Eureka Springs, Birchfield said loss and a medical condition led him on a path to homelessness.

Birchfield lost both his parents to cancer when he was in his 20s. His three brothers and a brother-in-law were killed in a house fire about 10 years later because of a gas accident while they were painting a house, he said.

"After that, I couldn't handle it. I was getting to where I was staying drunk all the time," Birchfield said. "So I decided to move away and make a life somewhere. Everywhere I went, it reminded me of them."

He found himself living in a tent in Fayetteville. He ended up spending about 20 years of his life living outdoors until he joined New Beginnings.

Birchfield worked odd jobs over the years, mostly in fast food, but couldn't hold onto one for long because he's epileptic. He would get fired once he inevitably had a seizure on the job, he said.

He eventually started receiving Social Security disability payments providing $600 a month. While he was still living outdoors, he lost a fiancee to cancer. About five years later, another woman he planned to marry died while living in their tent. The drinking got worse, Birchfield said.

"Even if I hadn't drank, I couldn't afford an apartment on 600 bucks. I can't. How are you going to pay utilities?" he said.

Birchfield said he's gotten back on his feet and has a girlfriend at New Beginnings. Both have gotten sober and plan to move into an apartment together. Staff at the community have supported their efforts to quit drinking. Having a roof over their heads with basic needs taken care of has provided stability that will help them acclimate to life outside of temporary housing, he said.

No one who lives in a tent wants to be out there, Birchfield said. People often make mistaken assumptions about the homeless and think they're somehow immune to falling on hard times themselves, he said.

"It can happen to anybody," Birchfield said. "I know people who are living in a tent now -- they have jobs, and they're trying to save their money. But they're spending all their money on the stuff they need right now."

New Beginnings staff did the Point in Time count there. Birchfield said he's seen a lot of new faces lately at shelters and campsites.

"I used to know every homeless person there is around here," he said. "Boy, there are so many."

Breaking down the numbers

Trust is the key to getting someone to provide the valuable information included in the survey, said Mike Williams, chief executive officer of 7Hills. A lot of clients may be hesitant to provide personal information, but the answers help inform the regionwide response to homelessness, he said.

Staff and volunteers at 7Hills are well acquainted with the survey process, Williams said. Surveyors collected data at the organization's day center and its Walker residential community, he said.

"Because it's 7Hills and because we're with these neighbors every day, there is a level of trust when we say 'Can you answer a few questions for us?'" Williams said. "They tend to say yes, and we collect great data."

The federal government sets the date for the Point in Time count during the last week of January, but last year's count in Northwest Arkansas was postponed to March 10 because of inclement weather, Martin said. HUD can grant exceptions for extenuating circumstances, she said.

The 2022 count revealed 343 people experiencing homelessness in the region. Of the total, 198 were in Washington County, 81 were in Benton County, 23 were in Carroll County and 41 were missing county data. Unsheltered residents made up 100 of the total, with 165 in an emergency shelter and 78 in transitional housing.

School districts in the four counties also reported last year 2,268 children experiencing homelessness as defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which is the primary piece of federal legislation related to youth experiencing homelessness. The act defines youth homelessness as shared housing because of economic hardship, migratory children, when a nighttime residence was a place not meant for human habitation, or those in emergency shelter or transitional housing.

Schools report their totals to the regional Continuum of Care separately from the Point in Time counting effort. Most of the children reported as experiencing homelessness were "doubled up," meaning families staying with other family members or friends. Children in those situations accounted for 1,788 of the 2,268. Another 257 were in motels, 104 were in emergency shelters, 97 were unaccompanied youth and 22 were unsheltered.

The count taken Jan. 28, 2021, was skewed because covid-19 restrictions resulted in unsheltered residents not being taken into account. Only 157 people were counted as experiencing homelessness in the region with an additional 547 children.

The Jan. 23, 2020, count showed 369 people experiencing homelessness in Northwest Arkansas with an additional 2,188 children reported by schools.

National data show unsheltered homelessness and individual people experiencing chronic homelessness are on the rise, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. There were 582,462 experiencing homeless across the country last year, about 2,000 more than those counted in 2020.

The number of people experiencing chronic homelessness -- those who have been homeless for more than a year or at least four times in a three-year period -- increased nearly 16% last year compared to 2020. The number of unsheltered people, 233,832, was a 3% increase over 2020.

Youth, veterans and families with children experiencing homelessness dropped last year compared to 2020. Homeless youth dropped 12%, veterans dropped 11% and families with children dropped 6%, according to the data.

Northwest Arkansas is seeing the same trends, Martin said. The more data collected in the region, the better service organizations can target their efforts with the grant funding provided by the federal government, she said.

"By aligning ourselves with HUD and what they're seeing countrywide, I think it puts us in a good place," Martin said. "We're all seeing the same things. All of our organizations know the same things, and this is a great way to bring us together so we're not duplicating efforts and we're collaborating in a bigger way."

2022 Point in Time count

A regional count taken on March 10 in Washington, Benton, Carroll and Madison counties found:

343 residents experiencing homelessness and 2,268 children reported by schools who met the definition of homelessness.

Of the 343, 216 were cisgender male, 123 were cisgender female and four were transgender.

266 of the total were white, 42 were Black, 32 were Hispanic and 35 were reported as some other race.

There were 30 veterans experiencing homelessness, nine of whom were unsheltered.

163 people reported experiencing homelessness for the first time.

Source: NWA Continuum of Care


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