Homelessness count held statewide
By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Tue., Feb. 5, 2013
George Hernandez turned his Ford Taurus onto Broad Street in Danielson, driving slowly past Davis Park. Passengers Luke Walsh and Chris Henderson scanned the dark for anything that looked human. It was 7 p.m. on Jan. 29 and the three men were conducting a Point In Time homelessness count.
PIT counts are conducted yearly in January, but counts that include the unsheltered homeless are conducted every two years. Those counts require volunteers to search areas where homeless people might congregate.
Hernandez, Walsh and Henderson were one of three teams sent out of the Windham Regional Community Council that evening. They conducted a survey of areas in Danielson and Putnam, while another team went to Willimantic and another went to the Moosup area.
The numbers each team collected would be fed into a database along with the numbers of sheltered homeless that evening. The counts would provide a basis on which federal funding is granted to agencies that provide services to the homeless.
Hernandez had a map with streets marked in yellow highlighter. They were areas that Access Agency Director Deb Smith had suggested they check. “She's the boots on the ground,” Hernandez said. “She's entrenched.” He mentioned Leigh Duffy with the Willimantic No Freeze Shelter, and Jeff Beadle, executive director of the WRCC, who have been reaching out to the homeless for years.
“They know their guests personally and where they might be staying,” Hernandez said. He drove by a section of the Five Mile River. Walsh and Henderson peered in the dark for signs of people. At Water Street, he parked the car. They got out and walked the area. Each man wore a neon tag that identified them as Connecticut Count volunteers. They drove behind the abandoned Powdrell Alexander Mill. They didn't find anyone.
If they had found someone sleeping outside or camped out in the abandoned mill, they would have asked the person questions from a standard survey form. The 31 questions included everything from date of birth to ethnic identity, whether their being homeless was a result of domestic violence or a change in family structure. Volunteers were supposed to ask if the person was working, had children with them, or had been involved in the criminal justice system. If a person didn't want to answer, or couldn't answer, volunteers could mark that down.
According to Walsh, a coordinator with the Non-Profit Alliance of Northeast Connecticut, the survey's design is more suited for urban than rural areas. It's imperative that volunteers conducting the survey in rural areas are keyed in to people who know what's going on in those areas. In contrast to urban areas that might offer shelters or places to congregate, the homeless in rural areas tend to double and triple up with family members or friends.
“The biggest challenge is breaking out of homelessness and the issues that bring you to homelessness,” said Hernandez. “Mental health, the breakup of families, joblessness, substance abuse, and a combination of all those things can drive a person to that path. It's a very lonely, cold, arduous, hard life. Coming to grips with the fact that you are not providing for yourself, let alone loved ones, is a challenge. It can send anyone into a tailspin.”
Hernandez is a business technical specialist. He helps business owners get financing, write business plans, and shore up their businesses to keep them alive. He's been a translator in the courts. “Most people are desensitized to the homeless,” he said. “They're detached. But there for the grace of God go I. I try to have that sense of awareness.”
“People are people,” said Henderson. He is an Assets to Access Coordinator with the Access Community Action Agency working on an hour exchange program in Windham. “Homelessness is a grave injury on all of us. It's all our responsibility to be aware of it and do something to stop it.”
“Just putting yourself out there can help,” Walsh offered.
“The other thing is to actually pitch in to the marketplace,” said Hernandez. “Voice your opinion about universal health care, Headstart and childcare. Those are two basic things.”
He drove slowly by a bridge abutment and the men looked hard for anyone who might be sleeping underneath it. Then Walsh checked the map app on his smartphone and they drove in the direction of the next neighborhood on their list.