As rain poured down in the early hours of Thursday morning, community members searched under bridges, in the woods and behind grocery stores for individuals sleeping outside.
“Hello, is anyone there?” Sarah Francis called as she swept her flashlight across a sheet of metal leaning against a tree under the Memorial Avenue bridge.
The volunteers were taking part in the Point in Time Count, a yearly data collection of the number of homeless residents and information about their circumstances. The annual data-gathering mission documents how many people were homeless on a single night in Lynchburg. This year, the date was selected as Jan. 23, so volunteers began their search the morning of Jan. 24.
It is a requirement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for networks of nonprofits devoted to fighting homelessness around the country.
The data collected is a critical component that determines funding the local organizations working on homelessness receive from HUD annually, according to this year’s Point in Time committee chair Amber Teer.
“The goal is to fulfill our requirements with HUD, but also to raise awareness,” she said. “Oftentimes people in Lynchburg and the surrounding counties don’t see homeless individuals, so they think that’s not an issue in our community, which it definitely is.”
Additionally, data from the count helps inform future direction of the Central Virginia Continuum of Care, a network of homeless-response providers such as Miriam’s House and partner agencies including Horizon Behavioral Health, the Community Action Network and Lynchburg City Schools. The groups work together throughout the year to identify gaps in services for the homeless population and create strategic plans to meet those needs.
Teer, who also serves as Coordinated Homeless Intake and Access Coordinator for the city, said the information helps providers understand gaps in current services and trends from year to year.
With a flashlight guiding their path through the darkness of the Kemper Station Trail at 5:15 a.m. Thursday, Francis searched the nearby woods with volunteers Jennifer Demmin and Ben Morgan for any signs of those who spent the night unsheltered.
Francis, a program associate for Miriam’s House, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting homelessness, said the number of unsheltered individuals has decreased over the past two years and providers hope the trend continues this year.
Last year’s numbers showed a 10.4 percent decrease in the total number of homeless individuals on a single night in Lynchburg between 2017 and 2018. There were 20 unsheltered individuals and 92 sheltered individuals identified during last year’s count on Jan. 24, 2018.
However, Francis said thanks to the work of homeless street outreach coordinator Michelle Bauman, who started in July with Miriam’s House and the Community Access Network, the count could increase because Bauman knows specific locations for some of those living outside.
“This year … we were able to have a more robust idea of where the street homeless are located as opposed to previous years where we were just shooting in the dark,” Teer said. “I think that’s really helping in terms of zeroing in on specific areas or specific individuals that we can capture this year.”
From 5 to 7 a.m., Francis, Demmin and Morgan searched around Kemper Street and Memorial Avenue for unsheltered individuals to survey with required questions from HUD about their circumstances. Teer said the survey includes one community-specific question about barriers to shelter.
“So, have you tried seeking shelter in the past and weren’t able to obtain it because of no ID, substance use, or because shelters were full? This will help us get a better idea of some of the barriers to shelter in the community,” Teer said.
During her search, Bauman visited several locations around Midtown. She found three unsheltered individuals and said she didn’t expect to find any more.
“I know that a handful of chronically homeless people have been housed through a recent housing project — four or five folks — …so in our community that’s huge,” she said.
In addition to the morning count, Teer said volunteers were stationed at various locations across the community that providers know homeless individuals frequent such as Daily Bread, Community Access Network and both city libraries to ask visitors where they slept last night. If they slept outside, the volunteers will conduct the survey. Area homeless shelters also provide data on the number of individuals who spent the night in their facilities for the count.
Official numbers will be released in the spring.