Count offers volunteers unique glimpse of homelessness


Highlights

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition aims to recruit at least 600 volunteers every year for the count.

The annual count is required of all communities that receive federal homeless assistance grants.

The annual point-in-time count offers a snapshot of Travis County homelessness, recording the number of people in shelters, in transitional housing, and those outdoors or in cars, unsheltered.

In one early morning hours on Saturday, Jan. 27, hundreds of trained volunteers will journey under bridges, into the woods and into the dark areas between buildings to find and interview anyone experiencing homelessness.

To find people who are truly unsheltered, the count starts at 3 a.m. and lasts until about 9 a.m. The hours and winter temperatures can deter a number of potential volunteers, but more volunteers can lead to a more accurate count, so the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition aims to recruit at least 600 every year.

“People say to me, ‘Do you really mean 3 a.m.?,” said Blythe Plunkett, an experienced volunteer for the count and a staff member of Project Transitions, a nonprofit that serves people living with HIV and AIDS. “They can’t see themselves out there at those hours. But then they realize there are people who live like this. So that experience helps them get a sense of what some people have to go through on a nightly basis.”

RELATED: Homeless population drops in Austin, Travis County in 2017

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that all communities receiving federal homeless assistance grants conduct the count in January. But the count also can be a window into the realities of living unsheltered and the circumstances by which people find themselves on the streets.

“It can be a real eye-opener for a lot of people,” said Plunkett. “It’s scary to go out into these camps, but I think once they’re out there, they realize that the people who are homeless that night are just as leery of them.”

RELATED: Mobile Loaves & Fishes to expand homeless housing, reduce panhandling

“What I’ve learned is that people can be very quick to stereotype what they think a homeless person looks like or what their experience is,” said Ed McHorse, another experienced count volunteer and an attorney with Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody. When he took his teenage son with him on the count, McHorse says he let him conduct the interviews to give him a chance to understand how someone might have found themselves in a homeless situation.

“I think he also saw how important that human interaction was and how much these people need that,” said McHorse. “They’re human beings. They want to talk to someone and have them look them in the eye.”

With more than 800 unsheltered people counted last year in one night, it might seem overwhelming to interview and understand the plight of every person on the street. But McHorse says it’s the opposite.

“When you talk to someone and find out what they need, you start to imagine how we as a community can help this person,” he said. “I hope people volunteer and come away thinking, ‘Maybe I can’t solve all of homelessness by myself, but I can help this person right here.’”

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