Cafe volunteers

Community Cafe volunteers Maxine Corrin, left, Robin Hilfer, center, and Randy Hilfer, serve guests during the Community Cafe at the Backus Community Center. The Community Cafe will serve as a survey location during the PIT count week.

When people picture homelessness, they may often think of people living on the streets, under bridges, or in alleyways.

Ariana Daniel, director of Servants of Shelter, insists this is usually not the case.

“Homelessness is invisible in most places – this idea that the small number of visibly homeless people in urban centers is what homelessness looks like is just wrong...that’s only a fraction of the people actually experiencing homelessness at any given time,” she said.

The lack of a visible homeless population in Borderland doesn’t mean one doesn't exist.

“Here, you’re seeing less (homeless people) simply because there is more space. They don’t have to be in places that people can see them,” Daniel said.

This lack of visibility will make for a challenge toward the end of this month when Koochiching County, along with the other five counties in the Northeast Minnesota Continuum of Care, participates in the Annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count on the night of Jan. 22.

What is the “Point in Time” count?

The PIT count is a nationwide requirement, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to help identify the minimum number of people experiencing homelessness and to learn more about the needs in the community.

“The count provides a snapshot of Koochiching County that will help our community understand trends, and respond to the needs of people experiencing homelessness,” Daniel said. “(It) captures the experiences and needs of our homeless population so that we can educate our community and improve services,” she added.

Koochiching County officials will use information from surveys to help bring funds for services to the area that help people experiencing homelessness connect to housing services.

How is the count conducted?

Due to the rural characteristics of Koochiching County, the PIT count cannot be done the same way it is conducted in metropolitan areas.

“Areas that are rural are notoriously undercounted," Daniel said. 

Instead of physically going to shelters and under bridges and counting people, like done in urban areas, people who are homeless, and community members who know of people who are homeless, are asked to self-report. Organizations that provide services will help report and conduct surveys.

“All of us (Servants of Shelter, Kootasca, Salvation Army) work together to try and get an accurate count of who we are working with at that moment – who are doubled up, or living in motels or something – because they may not be actively looking for housing, but they are still living in a situation that is considered by the state of Minnesota to be homeless,” Daniel said.

She acknowledges that the self-reporting count often leads to undercounting, but said that is addressed in a number of ways. Employees at county social service agencies often fill out observational reports to help count people who are experiencing homelessness, without disclosing their personal information. Social services staff see more people who may not actively be working with with housing officials, but are still homeless, she said.

The PIT count week can be hectic for many local agencies.

“We all try to be very available that week because you can actually do the surveys for the entire week - it’s just that people actually have to be experiencing homelessness on the night of (the count),” Daniel said.

Since the count is only for people who are or will be homeless on one specific night, some people - including those in treatment or in jail - who would otherwise be homeless are left out of the count.

What qualifies as homeless?

The following living situations qualify as homeless for the count:

  • Sleeping outside
  • Staying in a shelter or emergency housing.
  • Staying in a hotel or motel paid for by an agency, program or church organization.
  • Living in a vehicle, tent, camper, RV with no hookups, or abandoned building.
  • Living in a trailer, barn, shed or garage located on a relative’s or friend’s property.
  • Temporarily living with relatives, friends, or others, or couch-surfing.

“The No. 1 reason we see people experiencing homelessness is that they do not have housing options that they can afford with low and stagnant wages,” Daniel explained.

While there are other reasons - job loss, divorce, disability, illness, fire – for being homeless, none of these factors compare to the large numbers of people whose wages simply won’t cover their rent and expenses, she said. Some people aren’t counted in the report because they have stopped actively looking for help through services, she added.

“Just like a job search, there’s a point where people give up...  they may still be bouncing around, but they’re not looking (for housing),” she said.

Who collects the data?

A team of area organizations, community members, and public service agencies work together to collect surveys and help connect people to resources.

Most of the reporting and research are conducted by staff of local agencies who come in contact with people seeking their services.

“It’s Salvation Army, AEOA, the (Careerforce) center– we do reach out to local law enforcement, and the hospital and first responders to try to get the word out and just let as many people know who might come into contact with somebody,” Daniel said.

At last year’s PIT night, the Northeast Minnesota Continuum of Care counted 28 unsheltered homeless people; 22 unsheltered homeless households; 90 homeless (sheltered and unsheltered) people; 53 homeless (sheltered and unsheltered) households; 79 homeless doubled-up people; and 47 homeless doubled-up households, totaling 169 homeless people on Jan. 23, 2019.

The agencies will be set up at the Community Cafe at the Backus Community Center during the week of the count with informational tables, and to collect surveys.

“We set up at the Community Cafe because the Community Cafe has been designed to not have any sort of stigma,” she said.

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