Apolice car slowed suddenly, flipping its blue lights on as it banked a U- turn on Eugene Street in downtown Greensboro. Sidling up to a man pushing his bicycle, a crate with a trash bag in it strapped to the front of the bike, the cruiser stopped and rolled down the passenger side window near the man.
Stopping traffic to talk to someone experiencing homelessness in the middle of the day may not be a regular sight, but the scene wasn’t exactly as it appeared. Over the course a day last week, 13 Greensboro police officers helped homeless outreach volunteers conduct the county’s annual pointin-time survey, federally-mandated research that helps assess the demographics, size and needs of the community’s homeless population.
The survey is anonymous and asked about 1,000 people who don’t have homes about where they slept on the night of Jan. 29. The man with a bike said he stayed at a friend’s house that night, adding that he has a place under a bridge where he is often forced to sleep. Asked on Jan. 30, another man wearing overalls and walking farther down Eugene Street in front of Hampton Homes said he slept in his tent.
Teams armed with clipboards fanned out across the county on Jan. 30 with follow-up outreach efforts for several days, and the effort — coordinated by Partners Ending Homelessness, the planning and coordinating organization for homeless service delivery in Guilford County — also reached into shelters and outreach ministries. The numbers reflect a rough count based on the number of people that agreed to complete surveys, and numerous people stopped on the street or asked at a regular free meal at Open Door Ministries in High Point declined to participate.
Debbie Bailey, a resource and data analyst with Partners Ending Homelessness, said the number of people surveyed has dropped gradually from 1,082 in 2007 to 1,005 in 2012. Partners Ending Homelessness Executive Director Darryl Kosciak said about 85 percent of people who were asked to participate at Open Door Ministries’ breakfast meal agreed, and said the goal was to provide an annual snapshot of homelessness on the county. The survey’s questions explore why people are homeless, how long they have been, what services they receive, what they struggle with, their background including education and race, if family members or partners live with them and if they are working.
Completed information from this year’s count will not be available until Feb .27, but Bailey said a preliminary glance at the results showed that respondents overwhelmingly cited the same two reasons for experiencing homelessness as people have in the past — underemployment or unemployment and mental health issues.
While the number has been dropping, Bailey said the definition of homelessness has changed slightly. The US Housing and Urban Development Department altered the classification of homeless youth last year, she said, no longer defining minors who are staying with a friend or family member as homeless. The US Department of Education still considers the same kids to be homeless, making up 1,700 of about 2,600 homeless youth, Bailey said.
Open Door Ministries’ lunch crowd included several children, and one woman with her hand on her stomach told a volunteer that she felt a kick. Attendees gathered at circular tables and eating Southern food as volunteers circulated with surveys and smiling yellow stickers that said “I count!” The Latino Family Center sent an interpreter to the High Point outreach meals. Circulating on the street, volunteer Melissa Byrd made her way through the survey with a homeless man camped near the Depot in Greensboro. Byrd was homeless when she was a teenager growing up in Guilford County, and for the past 11 years she has done outreach here. Checking under bridges, through thickets and rolling the streets with a police officer and John Fennell, a volunteer who does outreach with the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Winston-Salem, Byrd seemed to know everyone. Most of them agreed to talk but a few had already been surveyed, and one man who recognized her outside the Salvation Army thanked her for helping with the count again.
The Greensboro Police Department’s community resource team has played an important role in helping volunteers gain access to homeless people in the city, Kosciak said, and the 13 officers who participated in the point-in-time count were among 55 volunteers for Jan. 30, including a large contingent from AmeriCorps.
The community resource team, comprised of 12 officers spread out over four districts, takes a relatively hands-off approach to enforcement against homeless camps unless complaints are made, Officer Douglas Campbell said.
The last time Campbell dealt with a homeless issue in the central division, where he is stationed, he was able to request a homeless person clean up the area around where they were staying under a bridge near Murrow Boulevard, where some people had complained about trash accumulating. The only issue in one of the city’s largest homeless camps, located in the historic Aycock neighborhood, came from one drunk woman who regularly yelled at her boyfriend, Campbell said, adding that most camps could go unnoticed for long periods of time.
Campbell said people are just trying to make it as best they can, and said it is nice when they are able to find secluded areas and don’t disturb anyone, which has largely been the case at a camp near Lee Street and the downtown Greenway.
“If I don’t get a complaint, I’m not too worried about it,” he said. “They were trying to fly under the radar and am happy to let them.”