Though most of the homeless population in the Chattahoochee Valley are concentrated in Columbus, those charged with creating a snapshot count made a concerted effort to get an accurate number out of Phenix City and Russell County.
And it seemed to work Tuesday night and Wednesday morning as about 75 volunteers canvassed both sides of the Chattahoochee River in the annual Point in Time count conducted by Home for Good. The United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley agency is tasked with carrying out the city of Columbus’ 10-year plan to end homelessness.
A year ago, three of the 303 homeless people counted were found in Phenix City. This year, nine of the initial 262 were in Phenix City, a community with no homeless shelters and sparse resources to deal with the issues surrounding homelessness.
The early numbers of this year’s count show that 197 of the homeless slept in shelters Tuesday night and 65 were unsheltered. The overnight low was also about 15 degrees warmer when the survey was conducted last year. Last year’s survey of shelters, camps and programs that assist the homeless was conducted Jan. 24-25, 2016.
“Last year, we made a quick pass over there, but this year we devoted resources and went pretty deep into the woods,” said Pat Frey, executive director of Home for Good.
A team of nearly a dozen volunteers worked the Alabama in cooperation with the Russell County Sheriff’s Office and Phenix City Police Department trying to identify homeless residents and get them to fill out the survey.
“It really helped,” Frey said of the law enforcement participation. “We were able to get some places we would not have gotten and our people felt safe.”
Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor was pleased to see an expanded effort across the river.
“Finding nine is a good start, but we know that is not all of them,” Taylor said. “There has to be more than that.”
One of the reasons for cooperating in the count is it benefits the county, Taylor said.
“What they are doing is going to make our community better,” he said. “But those of us in law enforcement know where these encampments are. We see these folks. And when it gets too cold, too wet or too windy, some of them will go do something on purpose to get arrested and get out of the elements.”
It was a slow start early Wednesday as volunteers went to work at 6.
Chandra Wright, director of workplace giving for the local United Way, led the team working the Alabama side. The first stop was to work the Phenix City Riverwalk from the amphitheater to the 14th Street pedestrian bridge. It was well before 7 a.m. and no one was sleeping on benches.
“I am a little surprised,” Wright said. “I thought we would see some people down here. But when it gets cold, many of the Phenix City homeless go to Columbus, where the services are. That is where you can find a warm place to stay or a hot meal.”
After more than two hours of combing the Alabama side of the river, a traditional spot for homeless activity, the volunteers found just three men who identified themselves as homeless. They were in a concrete substructure just below the Dillingham Street Bridge, a short walk from downtown Columbus.
The survey teams also included employees from the Phenix City Housing Authority. Haley Raney, the resident services coordinator for the Phenix City Housing Authority, participated in the count for the first time. She agreed with Wright’s assessment.
“A lot of the resources, specifically for homeless, not just low-income families, are on the Columbus side,” she said. “If you become homeless and lose all of your resources, you need a place to sleep and food, you are probably going to wander over to Columbus. They might come back over here during the day, but if it gets cold at night, they will go over there.”
The effort started Tuesday night with a count of the local homeless shelters. About three dozen volunteers moved through four Columbus shelters, conducting the annual Point-in-Time count of the local homeless population.
Angwell Anderson, 56, was one of the people counted during the diner-hour at Grace House in Beallwood. The U.S. Army veteran has been homeless for about a month, he told those asking him survey questions.
The information is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is tied to funding. There is also a local database that allows those agencies in the Chattahoochee Valley that assist homeless residents to better know the needs.
“I am glad that there is a program to help those down on their luck,” said Anderson, who said he was in the Army for 12 years and in the National Guard for six more.
This is an annual process that began in 2009 under the direction of the Homeless Resource Network. Two years ago, Home for Good took over coordination of the effort.
“When you do this, you see a person, not just a face,” said United Way President Scott Ferguson, who was participating in the process for the fourth year in a row. “And when you ask these personal questions you see the struggle.”
In addition to getting a number — a snapshot, Ferguson calls it — you also get data on mental illness, family situation, education, criminal background and other information.
The volunteers went into Trinity House, Grace House, House of Mercy and the Salvation Army. The survey was being doing by staff at Valley Rescue Mission and Damascus Way.