Workers canvass area in winter homeless count

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

If you can imagine being homeless in weather like southwest Missouri is having this winter, you appreciate the urgency of the semi-annual count of homeless people being taken by the Nevada Housing Authority.

The count provides information for policy and planning decisions at local, state and federal levels, and impacts funding, so Housing Authority Executive Director Carol Branham consults various local aid groups and drives around, looking for anyone who might be homeless by checking street corners, overpasses, convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

The latest survey won't be completed until Friday, but previous reports to the Missouri Housing Development Corp. showed 374 homeless people in the 12-county Region 9 last summer and 313 last winter.

Those included 43 in Vernon County last July and six last January. The state distinguishes between "sheltered" and "unsheltered" people with the first category indicating those with temporary abodes, many of them displaced teenagers with drug and alcohol problems.

Last summer's local count showed 16 sheltered and 27 unsheltered. All six of the people who were homeless here last winter had places like friends' houses to stay in at least temporarily, according to reports.

Joined by the Governor's Committee to End Homelessness and Missouri Association for Social Welfare, the MHDC said the Show Me State had 1,901 such people a year ago-- 1,328 sheltered and 573 unsheltered.

"Vernon County has no emergency housing or transitional living and I have been amazed at how many young people and just people in the community were homeless in the last year to 18 months," Branham said Thursday.

"What it looks like in rural Missouri is totally different from a city like Chicago. It's not always low income people or a certain population.

"It's all ages and socio-economic levels with different situations and dynamics. With the challenges to the economy, people lose their homes. I take my compassion and humanitarian standpoint from the fact that tomorrow, it could be me."

Branham said the predicament demands cooperation from the afflicted and insight from those who would help. "You have to build a level of trust and they need the mindset to make the changes," she said.

"It has to be right for them, not what we think. When you approach someone at an overpass or under a tree, you must understand that you're entering their domain. It's like someone walking into my family room.

"Sometimes we think we're going in on a white horse, but we have to be cautious because they fear something else will happen to them."

Numerous non-profit and faith-based organizations also take part in the "Point-in-Time Count" that state officials call "a snapshot" of the 101 rural counties of the Missouri Balance of State Continuum of Care.

"It's hard to get a good count in the summertime because you have more openness," Branham said. "The data is important because it affects community funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development."

Youthful homelessness is woefully familiar to Nevada psychologist Patricia Bridgewater, who deals with it often as chair of the Vernon County Youth Task Force. "Our survey of all Vernon County high schools three years ago showed 66 kids homeless," Bridgewater said.

"We find a lot of couch surfing where they stay at different places a few days at a time. Their homes have problems like parents' addictions or severe aggressions and they can't take it anymore and are just trying to stay out of trouble."

Bridgewater said such situations are worrisome because the youths are often using drugs and alcohol and living "from day to day."

"These are some of highest risk kids to drop out of school," she said. "They're at higher risk for everything."

An oft-heard tale is that the teen was rejected by his or her parents for substance abuse. "My advice is that when you see it, take it seriously from the beginning and get help right away," the psychologist said.

"Teenagers' decision-making isn't always good in and of itself and if you add drugs or alcohol, they can get themselves into trouble with lifetime consequences."

Missouri's rural "Continuum of Care" works in concert with similar urban groups to organize housing services "and meet the specific needs of homeless persons as they move to stable housing and maximize self-sufficiency," the MHDC says.

Urban groups are in St. Louis, St. Charles, Springfield, Joplin, Kansas City and St. Joseph.

The count is mandated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in obtaining funding from certain programs.

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