Uncommon Census

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Every winter, Continuum of Care organizations funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are asked to conduct a census of the homeless in their communities. The point is to help insure that the range of services provided and the programs operated by a Continuum match, to the greatest degree possible, the full range of needs.

[Photo: Project Homeless Connect workers]

As requested, last winter the City of Norfolk conducted a census and found that, on an average day, there are between 600 and 800 homeless people in the city. But getting an accurate count was only a starting point.

Reflecting Mayor Paul Fraim's public commitment to end chronic homelessness within the next 10 years, the City also used the annual census to launch Project Homeless Connect, designed not just to count, but also to help serve the homeless.

Homeless people like the chronically homeless man they counted last December who, reports The Virginian Pilot, "survived on food scavenged from a convenience store dumpster." As a result of the annual census, Project Homeless Connect transported him to a special center staffed by some 30 social agencies. Moments after arriving, the man received a health check-up that very quickly revealed "life threatening symptoms that landed him in the hospital that day."

Eight months later, he's stabilized and living in an assisted living facility. "You would not recognize him now," said Katie Kitchen of the City's Office of Homelessness.

And he was not the only homeless person not only counted but helped by last winter's Project Homeless Connect census. All told, 175 people received medical care, 135 submitted employment applications, 70 filed for government benefits, 17 found homes and 14 got jobs.

"This notion of connecting with the homeless is very important," Mayor Fraim told The Virginian Pilot. Service need to be provided, information needs to be collected." And, he probably would add, it needs to happen more than once a year.

That's why in August, the City decided to conduct its second census and outreach campaign of the year. "Originally," Fraim noted, "it was going to be once a year, but it has been so successful we're going to twice a year."

And the services provided, the agencies involved will be even greater, with more than 60 providers and new services like voice mailboxes provided by The Salvation Army, free long-distance phone calls by Cox Communications and even a free cup of Starbucks coffee and ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery.

"Part of the homeless population is very distrustful of authority or people who try to help, and this dispels some of those fears," the Mayor said. "If we gain their attention or confidence, then we can help them."

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