Sam Witted spent most of the 1990s on the streets of Durham. He knows the city’s hiding places.
He shone a flashlight into some of those shadowy nooks Wednesday night, looking for people who are homeless – as he once was – so they could be included in a Point-in-Time Count, an annual effort to count how many people are without shelter.
“Hello?” he called as swept the wooded back yard of a long-vacant home in East Durham. “Hello?” he said to anyone hunkered down behind the 6-foot fence at the back of an auto-parts store. “Hello? Hello?” he shouted into the black basement of a burned-out house.
It’s not entirely true that people can’t just disappear; thousands of North Carolinians do every year, some of them several times a day. By day, they may come out to get warm in a bus station or to wait their turn for a computer at the public library so they can search for a job. When they don’t want to be seen, they may retreat to a tent in the woods or a lean-to by the railroad tracks.
“You learn where to go,” Witted said, to stay out of sight.
Witted and 60 or so other volunteers worked with a list of the places the homeless are known to frequent around Durham. They gathered Wednesday evening in a meeting space of the downtown office of Healing with CAARE, a nonprofit that serves the homeless and those in financial need.They packed goodie backs with bottled water and canned sausages to give away to those who would accept them, then fanned out with clip boards and smart-phone apps in teams of four to six, each group assigned to a different geographic area to avoid counting anyone twice.
Durham began counting its homeless in 1998, said Lloyd Schmeidler, project manager for the city’s Department of Community Development. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began collecting the information from around the country a decade ago for use in its effort to combat homelessness, an attempt it has stepped up in recent years. Communities that receive HUD funding for the homeless must conduct a count on a single night in January each year to determine how many people are staying in shelters, transitional housing or safe havens. Every other year, they must also count the unsheltered: those living on the street, sleeping in the woods or under bridges or in other places not meant for habitation.
The count, viewed as a snapshot and varying in accuracy from one community to the next and even one year to the next, helps advocates for the homeless plan and provide services to help people get back into permanent housing.
Raleigh and Wake County will conduct the count on Saturday, with shelters reporting the number of people they housed the night before, and volunteers going to known encampments, centers where the homeless come to eat and other places where they are most likely to find the homeless in groups or alone.
The January 2015 Point-in-Time Count identified 10,683 homeless people across the state, including 904 in Raleigh and Wake County, and 813 in Durham.
The January 2015 Point-in-Time Count identified 10,683 homeless people across the state, including 904 in Raleigh and Wake County, and 813 in Durham. Shana Overdorf, executive director of the Raleigh Wake Partnership to Prevent and End Homelessness, said that the number of homeless veterans is expected to be down during this year’s count compared to 2015. However, it’s not clear whether all homelessness will show a drop, because of changes this year in the way HUD defines chronic homelessness.
Those who lead the teams are more than census-takers. They get an evening’s training on how to approach people and how to conduct a survey, which includes questions about whether a person would accept housing if it came with restrictions on drug or alcohol use, and whether the person has mental or physical disabilities. Team leaders often are people who work full time with the homeless and have built trust with the groups they serve, promising never to betray a name or a location.
Sabrina Bowyer, who was staying Wednesday night in an emergency shelter operated during the winter at Antioch Baptist Church in Durham, said she didn’t mind giving her name. She’s been homeless several times in her 45 years, she said, then got a home in 2010.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “I loved it.”
But Bowyer, who relies on disability insurance from the Social Security Administration for her monthly expenses, wasn’t able to keep up with the bills and the bank foreclosed. Even so, she took care of the place and stayed there through April, when she said a sheriff’s deputy told her there was a tax lien on the house and she had seven days to get out.
It helps you to realize and remember a lot of us are just one paycheck away.
Xieminia Lea, who helped with the Durham count
Through the spring, summer and fall, she and her dog slept in her van. Then it turned cold and last week, the snow and ice got to be too much.
“Frostbite started getting to my toes,” she said, wiggling her feet under the quilts that covered her cot, set up in a Sunday School classroom. A trusted acquaintance promised to take care of her dog and Bowyer agreed to seek shelter. She brought her laptop, which she was using Wednesday night to do homework for classes she takes at Durham Tech.
Her story and those of others who were interviewed will appear as a set of statistics in this year’s count, to be officially tallied and released in a report later. They may resonate even longer with the volunteers who took a few hours of their night to hear them.
“It helps you to realize and remember,” said Xieminia Lea, who helped with the Durham count for the fifth year, “a lot of us are just one paycheck away.”