County counts its homeless

sgilman@newsobserver.comFebruary 28, 2014 

In the last week of January every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a count of the nation’s homeless.

This year, authorities in Johnston County based their count on people who said they were homeless on Jan. 29. The total: 23 people.

Only the truly homeless get counted.

“When we talk to somebody, we ask them where they were the night of the 29th,” said Melissa Payne, a housing specialist with the Johnston County Mental Health Center. “They have to be literally homeless by definition, meaning the person is living on the street or in their car or in a place not fit for humans. A person sleeping on their friend’s couch is not included.”

Any community applying for funding from HUD must do the count, Payne said. “It comes down from the feds, and the whole country has to do it,” she said. “The point of it is to get a snapshot of what is happening in each community across the nation.”

The number of homeless in a particular community matters when it comes to receiving HUD dollars, Payne said. But “on a day-to-day level, it’s just so we can see where people are and to start to make decisions about doing outreach,” she said.

In Clayton, the county’s largest town, the count took place Jan. 31 at Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library.

Library workers Pam Johnson and Christie Starnes and Tania McCormick of the Johnston County Health Department stood at a table outside the library and waited for the homeless to come and be counted. They had filled bags full of essentials like water bottles and toothbrushes and collected small white pillows to give away.

No one came.

“It’s trial and error,” McCormick said. “This year we thought we’d try a more public place.”

It was a cold morning, and Starnes said that “really threw a kink in things.” As a result, the library still has a few of the care bags left. “I’ve been trying to get the word out for that,” she said.

After a few hours of no results, McCormick jumped in her car and drove around to try to find the homeless in places they are known to stay. Library workers often see homeless people come in, but it can be hard to track down where they are on any given day.

Johnson added that while the homeless didn’t turn out to be counted, community members did take interest in the count and expressed interest in helping out.

“We did have a lot of local citizens and businesses inquire what was going on,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of response from the community of people wanting to be part of the program next year.”

That help could give a more accurate count of the homeless in Johnston County. Payne said the low figure this year might be misleading.

“Just because we can’t find them doesn’t mean they’re not there,” she said of the homeless in Clayton. “There are definitely a couple more. How many is hard to say.”

Starnes said she has worked in a public library for more than a decade and has seen quite a number of homeless people. They come into the library to use the bathroom, ask directions or just interact with other people.

“Some of them just simply want to have an area where they can just simply converse,” she said.

Starnes said the library workers use what limited resources they have to help, including pointing homeless people to shelters and services in the area.

“Some people, sadly, will choose to camp out somewhere rather than being in a shelter,” she said. “So hopefully that’s who will come by and get the resources we have here.”

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