This year’s count of Durham’s homeless found 813 people, up 7 percent from the 758 people counted the year before.
But some experts close to the city’s homeless situation say those figures don’t tell the whole story.
For one thing, the January 2014 “Point-in-Time count” was cut short by bad weather, said Bryan Gilmer, development director at Urban Ministries of Durham. There also was no count of the “unsheltered” – people spending the night in the woods, under bridges, on the street. With that figure, the 2014 total would have been higher.
The higher number this January could also reflect the fact that there are more beds available for homeless due to expansion at the Durham Rescue Mission – the city’s largest shelter, which can house almost 450 people in bad weather.
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And, some details in the 2015 numbers indicate Durham is making progress.
▪ The unsheltered count was missing for 2014, but the 44 found this year was down from 53 in 2013 when unsheltered were counted.
▪ The “chronically homeless” count – those with repeated periods of being in shelters or on streets – was down, to 55 this year from 82 in 2014 and a high of 141 in 2009.
▪ In 2015, the count found 53 people in Durham who became homeless within 30 days of discharge from prison, hospital or mental-health facility; that was down from 128 a year earlier and an 11-year high of 243 in 2009.
“One thing we’re been doing is trying to encourage our partners to work with one another,” said Reginald Johnson, the city’s community development director. “So that ... we have places for people to go.”
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development requires an annual Point-in-Time count in communities that receive its Continuum of Care grants.
The federal program is intended to promote “community-wide commitment to the goal of ending homelessness” and quickly re-housing homeless people (nando.com/185).
Competitive grants are awarded for construction, rehabilitation and leasing for transitional or permanent housing, and for supportive services. Durham’s Continuum of Care is administered by the city’s community development office, and has more than a dozen member organizations (nando.com/186).
For 2015, HUD awarded Durham just over $1 million for 16 projects by five organizations, including the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which is a common, confidential database of Durham’s homeless people.
Durham’s largest provider of homeless shelter, the Durham Rescue Mission , is a Continuum of Care member but accepts no government money and does not use the HMIS.
“We already had a software program before (HMIS) ever came out,” said Rob Tart, the Rescue Mission’s chief operating officer. “We’ve just continued to use ours.”
The numbers that the Christianity-based Rescue Mission turns in for the Point-in-Time count are broken down according to HUD definitions, Tart said; but Bowman said the different systems could produce total counts that overstate the homeless numbers.
“I’m not saying one (system is) better than the other, I’m just saying we’re playing by different rules,” Bowman said.
But it would be helpful if all providers used the same system, both in competition for HUD money and for “our community better understanding how we’re moving people out of homelessness.”
Those figures don’t show up in the annual count, Gilmer said, but they do reflect the federal and local emphasis on rapidly re-housing the homeless, rather than on emergency shelters.
From July 1, 2014 through March 2015, Gilmer said, Urban Ministries of Durham helped 299 people move from shelter or temporary housing into permanent homes; in fiscal 2013-14, the total was 289.
“We want to meet emergency needs but actually helping someone to get to a point where they’re not homeless is really important,” he said.
“We as a community need to do more to address the problem of homelessness,” Gilmer said. But, rather than more shelter, “the real missing element ... is housing that’s affordable (for those) working a full-time, basic-skill job.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines the “homeless” as:
▪ Individuals and families who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and includes a subset for an individual who is exiting an institution where he or she resided for 90 days or less and who resided in an emergency shelter or a place not meant for human habitation immediately before entering that institution;
▪ Individuals and families who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence;
▪ Unaccompanied youth and families with children and youth who are defined as homeless under other federal statutes who do not otherwise qualify as homeless under this definition; or
▪ Individuals and families who are fleeing, or are attempting to flee, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions that relate to violence against the individual or a family member.