York County counts its homeless

Sean Philip Cotter

David Hildebrand hasn't called the same place home with any consistency for about the past 10 years.

The 53-year-old Yorker spent Wednesday night at a friend's place, and often sleeps in houses he's being paid to help fix up, with some stops in shelters, he said.

"You just jump around and work where you can," he said.

He'd breakfasted on some cold pizza Thursday morning at Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen at 331 S. George St., and was back there again for lunch shortly before noon. He eats most of his meals there, he said.

Before he headed into the soup kitchen for lunch, Sonia Pitzi came up to him and asked him some questions about his living situation.

Pitzi, a regional coordinator for the state's Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness program, was one of about 40 people out around York County on Thursday, conducting part two of the somewhat-annual tally of the county's homeless population.

Pitzi said she believes the homeless population is rising in all parts of the county.

"It's not just in the city — it's everywhere," she said.

This survey, mandated by the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, is conducted by the county's Continuum of Care, a program under the umbrella of the county's planning commission that works with the homeless population.

This count provides a snapshot of the homeless population of York County. The county and HUD use it to track trends in the homeless population and then respond to it, said Jessica Mockabee, who chairs the Continuum of Care. For example, they've seen a rise in homeless families, usually consisting of a single parent with children, she said, so they've geared more efforts to helping kids.

Because it's a one-time count every year or two, there's a lot of variables that can make a big difference from tally to tally. For example, if it's warmer, fewer homeless folks will seek refuge in a shelter, said Kelly Blechertas, a program coordinator for the planning commission who's involved with the count. Or if, like this year, the count happens at the start of the month rather than the end of it, people who rely on government checks temporarily will have a bit more money. Then they might be able to put a roof over their heads.

The count works like this: The "sheltered" homeless got tallied first on Wednesday night, with all the major shelters and transitional housing units in the York area reporting who slept under their roofs that evening. This usually takes a few days to get all sorted out, so it's unclear what this year's number will be, Blechertas said.

They tallied 475 sheltered homeless in 2015 — when they counted on what several people recall as a very cold night at the end of the month, on Jan. 28 — up from 423 in 2014 and 399 in 2013.

And then the Continuum of Care workers and volunteers used a multi-prong approach on Thursday to try to figure out the number of "unsheltered" homeless. Some groups of volunteers started early in the morning, checking out parking lots and other places where homeless people sleeping out on the street might spend the night.

Others went to the soup kitchens around the area, places where people out on the street are likely to come for a meal. They surveyed the people coming and going, asking them where they spent the previous night. They also hand out some goods, such as water, cans of juice, snacks, scarves and toiletries.

They count people who spent the last night somewhere "not fit for habitation," such as a car or an abandoned building, Blechertas said. This means — per HUD's instructions — they don't include people who said the spent the past night on a friend or relative's couch, she said. People who bounce around aren't counted as homeless in this tally. So Pitzi didn't mark Hildebrand down as homeless when she talked to him outside the soup kitchen.

"It’s certainly not a total number, but it’s the best we can do," Blechertas said.

The Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen is one of the most heavily trafficked soup kitchens around. Mockabee spent a few hours there Thursday morning surveying the people coming for breakfast and then lunch. Shortly before noon, when they were planning on wrapping up the count there, they'd had only about 10 people who they counted as homeless, fewer than last year, she said.

And only one of them was what they term "chronically homeless," meaning it's been going on for a significant period of time. Most homeless people aren't chronically so, Blechertas said; they, like Hildebrand, might spend nights on a mix of other peoples' couches and low-income housing, with only brief stops out on the streets.

"It’s not a majority, certainly not," she said of the chronically homeless.

They usually conduct the unsheltered homeless count every other year, but HUD wants another tally this year, even though they counted last year, when they found 42 unsheltered homeless, of whom 34 were chronically homeless, according to the Continuum of Care. That's an unusually high percentage, Mockabee said; in 2013, they counted only 6 of 50 unsheltered homeless to be chronic, and before that 12 of 24.

On Thursday, only one of the people they'd counted qualified as chronically homeless. Most of the people coming to the soup kitchen actually aren't homeless, though many have been at one time or another. That's one of the many tricky parts about measuring the homeless population — people are always in flux, often bouncing back and forth between fitting HUD's definition of homeless and not.

A different snapshot count of the homeless population might have captured Noel Aviles. The 54-year-old Yorker has a roof over his head now, but he's been out on the street before; at one point, he was a truly unsheltered homeless man, sleeping on benches downtown, he said.

"It was a rough time," he said with a wry smile, leaving Our Daily Bread with a warm meal in his stomach from the soup kitchen and some fruit snacks in his pocket, courtesy of the survey volunteers.

— Reach Sean Cotter