In the midst of the ongoing intense cold weather, teams of volunteers are spreading across Montgomery County Wednesday morning for the yearly statewide census of homelessness. The count gives service organizations a snapshot of how many people are on the streets or in shelters on a given night, and it is required for counties that receive affordable housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The count is always at the end of January, because the colder it is, the more likely it is that people who usually stay on the street will be in a shelter and be counted, which makes the final number more accurate. The 2013 count found 1,041 people living in shelters, transitional homes or on the street in one night, but just 56 of those were sleeping outside.
Kathleen Shanahan with Montgomery County Housing and Homeless Solutions says there are always a few people who stay out in abandoned houses or hidden camps. Homeless count workers seek people out in spots they suspect might provide some shelter, or places they've heard rumors about. Invariably, they find people, even in the worst weather.
“I remember one winter when it was about this cold, it was just a couple of degrees, it was super windy, and there was a woman who … was like in her 60s, she wasn’t even a young woman, and [she] was so wrapped up in plastic to try to keep the wind off, it was just like this huge cocoon,” she said.
Shanahan says people who sleep out may have mental health or drug problems, or they might not feel safe around a lot of people.
“When the weather is this cold if you’re gonna still find somebody outside...there’s gotta be something else going on that someone’s not coming into shelter in the community,” she said. But she notes that most people become homeless not because of substance abuse or mental health, but because of poverty, and most do find a way to be inside especially in dangerous cold conditions.
Montgomery County is in the middle of a ten-year plan to end homelessness, which includes increasing the number of affordable housing and supportive housing units and developing new ways to support people who are chronically homeless to move into supportive housing. The numbers of chronically homeless people have gone down since 2006, but Shanahan says increasing the affordable housing stock is an area where Dayton and Montgomery County have fallen behind.
In 2012, more than 4,000 people in the Dayton area spent at least one night in a shelter, and the last homeless count found 12,325 people outside or in shelters across the state.
Dayton has warming centers open from 6am to 9pm through Wednesday at the Greater Dayton Recreation Center, the Northwest Recreation Center, and the Lohrey Recreation Center. Officials are encouraging anyone at risk of sleeping outside to check into a shelter run by St. Vincent DePaul.