Counting the lost: Survey aims to help the less fortunate

Published on Thursday, 23 January 2014 22:13 - Written by By Betty Waters

Small snowflakes blew in the cold air outside. Volunteers surveying the homeless found Bruce Tarter huddled with two companions inside the passenger waiting room of the Greyhound Bus Station in Tyler.

The trio said they were trying to stay warm until a church known for serving meals to the homeless opened its doors at 6 p.m. After eating, they planned to head to a tent where they live behind Super 1 Foods on North Beckham Avenue.

They would have a fire for a while, Tarter said, and then go inside thse tent and pile on blankets, clothes and sleeping bags. “We will sleep with our coats on tonight,” Tarter said, acknowledging the wintry night.

One of his companions, Carol Peterson, said she hasn’t had a job since 2008, even though she has looked and looked.

“I’ve done restaurant work, medical work, cashier work. I’m not picky at this point; I would take anything,” she said. “It’s real hard not to give up.”

Volunteers fanned out Thursday in 213 Texas counties, including Smith County, to simultaneously gather information on the number and make-up of people experiencing homelessness, reasons they became homeless and remain homeless, and their needs.

The Texas Homeless Network is gathering the information statewide.

Locally, approximately 80 volunteers underwent training at The Salvation Army’s headquarters in Tyler before dividing into teams that concentrated on finding the homeless primarily in Tyler, but also in smaller Smith County communities like Whitehouse.

It was the annual Point-in-Time Homeless Survey, spearheaded in the Tyler area by the East Texas Human Needs Network, a conglomerate of mainly nonprofit agencies but also governmental entities and for-profit agencies.

Taking into account that the homeless are transient, the survey is conducted on the same date across the state every year to ensure that no one is counted twice and it gives “a snapshot” of homelessness, Christina Fulsom, of the Human Needs Network, said.

“I fear that the number of people that are homeless and unsheltered will be greater this year because we’ve been interviewing people in tent cities and we found the encampments to be much larger than they were last year,” Ms. Fulsom said.

Results of the Smith County survey this year will be tabulated probably in a couple of weeks, she said.

The 2013 survey located 238 homeless people, of whom 57 were children and, based on the data, it was estimated that the actual number of homeless was 500, Julie Goodgame, grants administrator for The Salvation Army, said in a statistical presentation to this year’s volunteers.

The median age was 41, 61.6 percent were male and 39.4 percent female, she said. Military veterans are homeless at a higher rate than other groups in Smith County, Ms. Goodgame said.

Before setting out to conduct the survey, volunteers received advice on how to conduct an interview with a homeless person — how to approach someone and how to interact with people experiencing homelessness in a respectful way to make them feel comfortable and to let them know the reason for the survey was to improve programs to help.

Shannon Forgy, a homemaker, said she likes to volunteer and thought she could help with the survey when she saw a notice about it in the newspaper.

Alice Bailey, who retired from the insurance business, said she had the time to help people having life challenges and help meet the needs of the community.

Dr. Deborah Kelley, a Tyler Junior College professor, came with some of her sociology and psychology students who she required to write a paper about the experience of surveying the homeless.

“This teaches them so much better than a lecture on poverty and homelessness. This is real,” Dr. Kelley said. She expressed joy over seeing her students grow and understand the human condition better.

Whenever happening upon a homeless person, the volunteers asked a questionnaire and gave them a blanket and a sack containing socks and clean underwear, information about referrals to agencies that help the homeless and a $20 coupon for free clothing at the Cornerstone Store.

The bulk of the survey work was done in Tyler because that’s where most of the services for the homeless are being provided, Ms. Fulsom said.

Many of the homeless were found at The Salvation Army, East Texas Crisis Center, soup kitchens and other specific locations within the city where people that are not sheltered are known to be living.

Each team had an experienced leader, and teams that dispersed to places that are not shelters or soup kitchens were escorted by a police officer to ensure the volunteers’ safety, although there has never been an incident during the survey, Ms. Fulsom said.

The purpose of the survey, she said, is to determine if the number of people experiencing homelessness is increasing or decreasing, and to determine the make-up of the homeless. The homeless tend to be women and children in higher numbers than single individuals, Ms. Fulsom said, but a lot of veterans are experiencing homelessness too.

The survey will help alleviate stereotypes and bias that sometimes accompany homelessness, she predicted.

“It’s important for us to educate the community because in doing so, people will be much more likely to offer help when it’s needed,” Ms. Fulsom said.

Information collected in the survey will be shared across the state and will go to the national level to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Agencies that offer services to either prevent or address homelessness will use the information in writing applications for funding for their programs, Ms. Fulsom said.

“It is vital data in order to support programs, expand them if needed and to get money from the federal government. This information has made a difference in the last few years for many of the programs locally,” Ms. Fulsom said.

For example, a few years ago the city of Tyler received 25 housing vouchers for chronically homeless veterans from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Administration Support of Housing program.

Information collected in the survey is used in applications not only for federal and state funding but also in applications to foundations, churches and individuals explaining the needs and issues.

“We know what the problems are in the community. We know what the solutions are as well. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have agencies that either have the capacity or agencies that are willing to establish the type of comprehensive programs that are still missing in our community,” Ms. Fulsom said.