Homeless service providers are once again making preparations to count and survey the county’s most vulnerable residents in an effort to better understand the homeless situation here as well as where and how to seek funding to alleviate the problems they face.
To do that they are turning to the public for a little help.
Dubbed the “point-in-time” survey, or PIT, the count happens every year in January as mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is meant to provide a snapshot of the county’s homeless population by gathering, in a single 24-hour period, information about who the homeless are, how long they have been homeless, what services they need and what they are currently receiving.
This year’s PIT will be held on Jan. 23, and it will be the first one conducted since Flagler Hospital took over as lead agency for the St. Johns County Continuum of Care, the HUD-mandated umbrella organization of all county service providers.
“From our perspective we are really excited about the data,” John Eaton, Flagler Hospital’s director of community health improvement, told The Record on Friday.
If all goes as planned, once the surveys are done and processed, officials will have a better understanding of the county’s homeless population and its specific needs.
“We all have our impressions,” Eaton said. “But what do the numbers tell us? What do we learn on the 23rd that we can take and use over the next 12 months to address those issues.”
Seated with Brittany Coronado, who manages the Continuum’s Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, for the hospital, and the St. Francis House’s Denis Sousa, Eaton talked a little about the goals of the count and what the numbers — which have changed drastically from year to year — mean.
Last year the PIT counted 445 individuals identified as homeless. That was down from 1,064 in 2016.
“The methodology changed big time last year and was more in line with HUD’s mandate,” Eaton explained. “And while that gave us a more accurate count it is really a lot more labor intensive and volunteer focused.”
Sousa said that in years past, those conducting the count and the surveys used what was referred to as a “slash” or a “stroke” count, where volunteers would mark tallies on a sheet for people they saw on the street that appeared homeless.
While that method may get the final numbers closer to what people perceive as the real number, it may also capture people who aren’t truly homeless or meet HUD’s specific definition (which doesn’t include people living in hotels or sleeping on a friend’s couch).
“A college kid could be mistaken for homeless … if they rolled out of bed and ran to class,” Sousa offered as an example.
The old methods also didn’t help service providers understand what all the people counted needed in the way of assistance.
“By doing a stroke count, you can not tell somebody is veteran, you can not tell somebody is chronically homeless, you can not tell somebody has severe mental illness,” Coronado said. “That’s why the surveys come in.”
Once such things are known, service providers in the county and the Continuum can better focus grant applications and funding requests to help with the problems people are experiencing.
“The number for PIT is used across the board when it does come to funding,” Coronado said.
But it is a labor intensive process.
Sousa estimated that each survey can take between 20 and 40 minutes.
That is why the Continuum is trying to gather about 50 volunteers to help on the day of the count. They have some already, but they need more.
To be eligible, the volunteer needs reliable transportation, must be “friendly and compassionate” and have an eye for detail, according to literature from the Continuum.
Those interested can sign up for half- or full-day shifts and need to go through one of the offered training courses.
There are two scheduled training sessions left, one on Jan. 19 and another on Jan. 20.
At three to four hours long, the sessions are important to help prepare the volunteers for getting the important data needed to make the PIT successful, Sousa said.
“But you are going to walk away feeling comfortable on the day of the point-in-time to go out with the team lead and survey clients,” he said.
Those interested in volunteering can contact Flagler Hospital’s partner organization, St. Johns Volunteers, by visiting www.stjohnsvolunteers.org or calling 584-9600.