Today is the annual national Point in Time (PIT) Count of those experiencing homelessness. This day has been a long standing measure of homelessness across the country, however it tells us little about homelessness within our own community. It continues to be of use in cities so overwhelmed with homelessness that most people sleeping on the streets are unable to access direct help (think Los Angeles’ Skid Row), or in remote places across the U.S. that struggle with more complex data collection (there are some places that still cannot submit funding requests online because they don’t have internet!). Thankfully, Kent County is neither of these. While we struggle with having enough housing resources to help all of those in need, we are able to engage with people experiencing homelessness for other services. Our most pressing issue is not one of not knowing who is experiencing homelessness like it is in other communities, ours is that we do not have enough to end their homelessness quickly.
Over the years, we have worked to make this mandatory count day as beneficial for our community as possible. As we do all winter long, our outreach teams work to engage with those sleeping outside and talk to them about their options for emergency shelter and permanent housing. This year they have a new tool to use—an informational page of “myth busters” about our largest emergency shelter provider. Mel Trotter Ministries has been working hard to spread the word about the changes they have made. Now we are able to tell people things like chapel attendance is not a requirement, that their belongings will be securely stored, and that everyone is able to have a meal free of charge. Staff from Mel Trotter are part of our PIT Count Outreach teams so they can answer questions on the spot and let people know they are welcome. This work is critical in preventing people from staying outside on these Michigan winter nights that can so often be deadly.
For additional context about our work to house people across Kent County, it’s important to look not just at those experiencing homelessness at one point in time in the year, but to look at our work housing people over the years. In our 2009 Point in Time Count, 868 people were homeless that night. In 2017, our number was 912. Through the intervening years, the numbers have stayed relatively stable. However, if we look at the number of people we’ve been able to house, the numbers have changed drastically. In 2013, just five years ago, we were able to get 1,027 people into permanent housing. We’ve worked to improve our system’s capacity and in 2017 we were able to permanently house 3,107 people. This is the number we prefer to focus on; growing the number of people for whom we are able to end homelessness for good.