Community Action announces results of homeless survey in Jefferson County

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Community Action, Inc. recently received results from a survey conducted on Aug. 15 of unsheltered homeless individuals in the county.

Overall, the results were as follows:

• Eight individuals identified as being unsheltered homeless in accordance with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) definition.

• Two of these unsheltered homeless individuals completed interviews, and one received hotline services due to domestic violence. The remainder were identified through contacts with public services and businesses who identified unsheltered homeless people of whom they were aware. They were not located to interview directly.

• Finally, an additional four individuals and one family consisting of two adults and three children were identified as homeless but not meeting with the HUD definition of unsheltered homeless.

"This is kind of a snapshot of a point in time," said Community Action Planning Director Rod Rhodes.

The HUD defines a household as "unsheltered homeless) only when the individual or individuals are residing in a place not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings or the street.

It does not include people who simply do not have a home of their own, whether they are precariously housed, living in a hotel/motel, doubled up with friends or relatives, living in substandard housing or paying extremely high portions of their resources for rent.

The HUD requires an Unsheltered Point-in-Time Survey of the Homeless once every two years during the month of January. The last survey in Jefferson County took place on Jan. 26, 2011 and identified two unsheltered homeless persons. The next survey will be conducted this coming January.

The August survey came about after the state made the decision to conduct an additional Unsheltered Point-in-Time Survey of the Homeless to see if doing so during the summer rather than the winter would make a difference.

"To find an individual on a particular night in a known location is difficult," Rhodes said.

"In our area, they'll bounce around," he added. He said it's easier to count homeless individuals in urban areas, where there are known locations where they congregate, such as shelters and soup kitchens.

The unsheltered count began on Aug. 15 and took place from 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Staff and volunteers set out from Community Action headquarters in Punxsutawney and canvassed likely locations for unsheltered people. The most likely locations are public ones, places such as town centers, parks, shopping centers, laundromats, gas stations and all-night stores, restaurants and super centers.

They can also frequently include more remote areas in the woods, such as hunting cabins. However, the survey stayed mainly in the more populous areas of Jefferson County.

The canvassed areas included Punxsutawney, Brockway, Brookville, Sykesville, Big Run and Reynoldsville.

A service-based count was also conducted by sending letters with information regarding the count to police stations and fire departments to see if their staff members knew or suspected any unsheltered homeless in the area. The service-based count was performed for the entire 24-hour period on Aug. 15, during which time phone calls were made to service providers such as truck stops, convenience stores and other such locations to inquire about unsheltered homeless people who might frequent those areas.

The numbers found are smaller than those in larger, more urban counties.

"A lot of that's rural," Rhodes said. "We don't produce big numbers like Philadelphia or Allegheny County."

However, that only contributes to the existing homeless problem in rural areas like Jefferson County.

"It's just not visible on an everyday basis ... You just don't recognize them," Rhodes said.

Homelessness does exist in rural counties, Rhodes said, but it usually goes unnoticed by the casual observer. Homeless individuals in rural areas are often called "the hidden homeless" because of this. They have a tendency to look like everyone else and thus slip beneath notice.

This can lead to difficulties in solving the problems of homelessness in rural areas. Rhodes mentioned that Clarion County has been trying to get a family shelter set up. However, it's been encountering difficulty in obtaining funding because in order to apply for grant money, a need must first be established, and the statistics aren't as prevalent in rural counties.

On top of that, Rhodes said, "It takes more than a grant. It takes a community ... People have to recognize and support it."

That's where the HUD-mandated homeless surveys come in. Their design is to get rough numbers on unsheltered homeless individuals in the area so that the need can be firmly established.

"Any time you go to seek funding to solve an issue in a community, you need to demonstrate there is a problem," he said.

And he affirmed that there is a problem in Jefferson County. In 2011, throughout all of Community Action's shelters, 176 individuals were housed temporarily.

Community Action provides a number of other homeless services, including a men's shelter in Jefferson County, transitional housing for homeless men in Jefferson and Clarion counties, a domestic violence shelter for women and children in Jefferson and Clearfield counties and permanent housing for homeless and disabled individuals in Jefferson and Clarion counties.

Community Action welcomes volunteers for help with future surveys. Anyone interested when the time comes can call Community Action at (814) 938-3302.

Anyone who knows or suspects someone is homeless is asked to contact Community Action, Inc. for assistance at 1-800-648-3381 and request to speak with a Homeless Case Manager.