A recent census shows York County has its highest-ever number of homeless people. And while most of them stay in shelters, the county also posted its highest-ever number of "unsheltered" homeless people, those who sleep in cars, on the streets or in tents instead of staying at shelters.
More than two dozen people were walking the streets during last week's single-digit temperatures, according to the count completed by the York County Human Services Department and York County Planning Commission last week. There were 28 unsheltered homeless last week, up from 24 in 2011, 11 in 2009, and 13 in 2007. The unsheltered census is compiled every other year.
County employees last week stationed themselves at soup kitchens and shelters, interviewing 407 sheltered homeless people, those who stay in shelters. The number of sheltered homeless is counted every year and grew by one, up from 406 in 2012, making it the most Human Services has ever counted.
The growing homeless population can be attributed to several factors, said Jessica Mockabee, assistant director of Human Services.
Among them are the
expiration of economic stimulus programs, which have run out of money to assist homeless people, and the weather, she said.
"It might just be that we're counting more people because the weather is nice today and they're coming out," she said. "And it could be a greater need; our economy is still not where it used to be."
It was in the 50s last Wednesday as Mockabee greeted people outside the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, much warmer than the high temperatures just days before.
A different approach: Before 2011, social workers counted homeless people by scouring the undersides of bridges and other places where they had been known to camp. The new system of canvassing food pantries and shelters is more accurate because the homeless people come to the social workers, Mockabee said.
There are people staying, for example, in abandoned homes and other areas where social workers couldn't gain access, she said. But there are only so many places where the homeless can get free food, so county workers are posted at all of them for the count.
"We still probably won't even get all of them this way," she said. "But it's better methodology."
The first year of the new system, 2011, the number of unsheltered homeless jumped from 11 to 24.
Some people remain unsheltered because they want to be removed from society, have mental illnesses, or want to be as independent as possible, Mockabee said.
Survey: County staff, positioned at soup kitchens and shelters, last Wednesday asked survey questions to each homeless person who turned out for a meal or a bed.
The survey included questions about age, gender, veteran status, drug and alcohol use, HIV-status, mental illness and time spent in prison. They asked where the person intended to sleep that night and where he or she slept the night before.
Staff pointed people to programs that could help them, including the county's veterans services. Two of the unsheltered homeless were veterans, Mockabee said.
The survey information is used to determine assistance levels from the state's Department of Housing and Urban Development and other funding streams. The more accurate the number, the better the chance that York's allocations are adequate to meet the community's actual needs, she said.
Varied backgrounds: York's homeless range in backgrounds from veterans with mental health issues to people who relocated to the area and can't find work, Mockabee said.
One 43-year-old man standing outside Our Daily Bread soup kitchen said he's been on and off the streets for about 10 years, depending on the duration of his sobriety during an ongoing struggle with addiction to crack cocaine.
Anthony Santiago, 34, said he finds food and shelter in a daily dance between soup kitchens and friends' houses. He doesn't steal or rob, he said, but stays honest by relying on human services programs and the kindness of friends and family members.
Living with a disability, Santiago said he moved from New York but can't find a job. He eventually wants to get his own apartment, he said, but has been living day-to-day since moving last April.
-- Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.