Homeless population survey underway

  • Ethan Rudnicki is a counselor at ServiceNet’s Wells Street shelter in Greenfield. Social service agencies across Franklin, Hampshire and Berkshire counties, including ServiceNet, set out Wednesday night to drive around communities and survey the number of homeless people as part of a national program designed to showcase the needs of each region. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2022 7:17:22 PM
Modified: 2/27/2022 7:16:55 PM

GREENFIELD — Social service agencies across Franklin, Hampshire and Berkshire counties set out Wednesday night to drive around communities and survey the number of homeless people as part of a national program designed to showcase the needs of each region.

In western Massachusetts, local agencies like Community Action Pioneer Valley, ServiceNet and Eliot Community Human Service banded together, seeking a view into what the homelessness situation looks like in each area as they prepare to allocate resources and advocate for additional funding. Over the next 10 days, the organizations will also be surveying people in their shelters in what is called the Point in Time (PIT) count, which is a national initiative set up by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine the greatest needs across the country for homeless people with and without shelter.

In Massachusetts, each area is broken up into a Continuum of Care (CoC), where organizations in each area work together to survey homeless populations, while offering them resources if they are willing to accept them. Western Massachusetts is broken into the Berkshire-Franklin-Hampshire CoC, the largest in the state, and the Hampden County CoC.

“At its surface, it’s a count,” explained Erin Forbush, ServiceNet’s director of operations for shelter and housing in Pittsfield, Northampton and Greenfield. “The deeper piece for me and the work that I do is it creates that connection with the greater community and those individuals that may benefit from some of our assistance.”

The PIT count is a multi-pronged effort that is typically conducted on the third Wednesday of January, but it has been delayed to February in the past two years due to the pandemic. Once the boots-on-the-ground count is completed, each service provider also offers surveys to people spending time in their shelters and resource centers that week to ask them if they had a safe place to stay on the night count to paint a more complete picture. In essence, the PIT count acts as a snapshot of any given winter night to determine the highest-need individuals.

“If we see somebody tomorrow, we’re going to say, ‘Hey, it’s PIT count week, we’re checking in, did you have a safe place to stay Wednesday night?’” Forbush said. “It’s really the work that starts happening (Thursday) and moving forward for the week. … That’s really where we get the extra numbers.”

Community Action Pioneer Valley and its Three County Continuum of Care branch acts as the lead coordinator for each service organization in the region and will compile all of the data it receives from each organization.

Michele LaFleur, Community Action and the Three County CoC’s data and evaluation manager, said the count is done in the winter to find people who are in the most need, but might not always paint the most accurate picture.

“Doing the count in winter means there are a lot of people who might be unsheltered in warmer weather, but in winter may find another place,” LaFleur said, noting people may be couch surfing or families are more willing to open their doors when it’s cold. “What HUD has told us is the goal behind the count is to get a sense of how many people are experiencing homelessness and have no other alternatives.”

At the very least, HUD requires service organizations’ count must “represent all homeless persons who were sheltered and unsheltered on a single night during that period,” according to HUD’s PIT Count Methodology Guide. Both Forbush and LaFleur said these conditions often lead to an “undercount” because of those who are couch surfing or temporarily living with family, which LaFleur described as “invisible homelessness.”

“Locally, we made the decision to try and include as many people as we can,” LaFleur said, noting there are a “variety of reasons” why someone may not appear at a shelter.

The large swath of mostly rural land from Great Barrington to Greenfield these agencies are asked to cover is a challenge each organization must face as well. Although the physical distance can be a challenge, Forbush said the combined forces of three counties gives them a “louder voice” to advocate with.

“The rural nature just adds to the amount of space people do camp,” Forbush said. “We certainly utilize our connections with the folks we serve.”

Compiling the numbers

Once the count and surveys are finished, Community Action will begin collecting them and send them off as a final report to HUD by the end of April in preparation for the official report later in the year, which includes detailed breakdowns on race and gender.

In 2021, 14 people were experiencing unsheltered homelessness on a single night, five people were not in a shelter but were in a vehicle or unsafe property and 49 people were experiencing sheltered homelessness on a given night. In January 2020, 41 people were unsheltered and 63 were in a shelter, according to data provided by Community Action.

LaFleur cautioned that the lower count in 2021 was “difficult in the height of the pandemic” as organizations had fewer volunteers and staff and getting face-to-face time with people was difficult.

“Hopefully most of those things are settled down and we get a better representation of our population,” LaFleur said. “I anticipate the number we see this year is going to be higher than last year.”

Forbush echoed those sentiments and said the 2021 data is not a “fair number to use” because of those pandemic-related factors.

“We have seen the numbers of individuals increasing from the last several years,” Forbush said.

Getting the most accurate count possible is essential for Community Action, ServiceNet and other local agencies as they work to inform communities and government about the housing situation.

“Communities will ask us for a number of people experiencing homelessness,” LaFleur said. “We can use it for when we are trying to advocate. … Our local legislators like to see that information when they’re trying to make decisions.”

While Forbush said advocating and applying for grant funding is the “main object” of the PIT count, it also raises organizations’ awareness about the local homeless population.

“If there are people we’re not aware of,” Forbush said, “the people out doing these surveys are able to tell them ServiceNet has shelters in the area.”

As the count continues, LaFleur thanked the countless number of individuals and organizations that come together and produce a report.

“While Community Action are the ones compiling the results,” LaFleur said, “most of the work is done by so many providers and partners in the region and we’re really thankful to have all their help. We couldn’t do it without them.”

If you or someone you know needs shelter, ServiceNet’s 60 Wells St. shelter in Greenfield can be reached at 413-772-6100 and Northampton’s 91 Grove St. shelter can be reached at 413-586-6001. For additional information, contact ServiceNet’s shelter hotline at 413-587-7555 or visit servicenet.org.

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