Every year, during the last ten days in January, a federally-mandated survey of the homeless population takes place across the country. It’s called the point in time count, and it’s a way to establish the number of homeless people in a given area on one night. Tippecanoe County officials do their count a little differently than most, though. The count also serves as their chance to make a connection.
It’s 5:30 a.m on January 25. It’s dark, and it’s cold, and Kurt Harker is searching for someone. But he’s got a plan for where to look next.
“The garden at St. John’s,” says Harker.
Past the bright lights that illuminate the entrance into the church’s garden, it’s shadowy and hard to see.
“Anybody home?” says Harker. “Anybody here? Nobody here.”
Harker heads back to his car. But then a woman emerges, clutching a rolled-up blanket beneath her arm. Harker hurries to her side and starts talking. The woman’s name is Tracy. She’s wrapped in a heavy winter jacket, and her eyes are bright beneath a thick layer of mascara.
“This is my fifth night out here, with just this,” says Tracy. “And I managed to get through it for five nights.”
Tracy is homeless. We’re only using her first name to protect her identity. Harker listens attentively to Tracy’s story, and makes sure to verify her name and date of birth. He’s seen her around. Harker is the point in time coordinator for region 4, an eight county area that includes Tippecanoe and surrounding counties. Tracy, who was unsheltered on the evening of January 24, will be added to the final tally.
Harker gives Tracy a bag of food and a bag of small essentials—which contains everything from flashlights, to lip balm and bus tokens. He can’t stay longer, though—there are more people to find.
"A good day"
Harker’s approach to the point in time count is simple: have a plan. He’s got a pages-long list of names of people in the Lafayette area known to experience homelessness. He has a spreadsheet with locations to scout: laundromats, parking lots, parks, bridges, the library.
“When we go out to find these people, we’re not satisfied to say, ‘Yes, we’re counting you,’” says Harker.
The data gathered by the point in time count is submitted to the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, which in turn submits the data to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The final, national report makes its way to Congress. The 2017 count for the region 4 area was 155 homeless individuals—110 in shelters, and 45 unsheltered. That’s down from 172 in 2016, but both of these numbers are just educated guesses that likely don’t count everyone without reliable shelter.
But Harker thinks this day can transcend statistics. If nothing else, he wants the homeless to have a good day.
“It may just be that day,” says Harker. “But on that day, we want them to be treated well, we want them to be able to come into a warm place and eat good food, and hang out with some people that care about them—and try to start making some connections that could help that person in the long run.”
If a homeless individual agrees to be surveyed, and provides answers to a few key questions—for example, the last four digits of their social security number, or the most important question, where they slept last night--they receive a ticket, good for food, services, winter clothing, or even a visit with a nurse.
To be helped, you have to be counted
At the Lafayette Transitional Housing Center, Harker sits with a man named Anthony for almost thirty minutes. He hasn’t met him before, and by the end of the survey, Harker knows Anthony is a veteran, has experienced homelessness in one form or another for 20 years, and that a fight the previous evening landed Anthony in the ER with blood coming out of his ears and a prescription for antibiotics he can’t fill because he doesn’t have insurance. Harker makes plans for him to see the nurse.
Brad Meadows, marketing and communications director for the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, says Lafayette’s efforts go above and beyond.
“Kurt and his team have demonstrated not only a desire to meet the minimum threshold--that’s going out and doing a count--but actually turning this into an opportunity for outreach,” says Meadows. “An opportunity to provide assistance to those individuals who need it most in Lafayette.”
But the count is supposed to be bigger than just Tippecanoe County – and that’s a struggle. The count should include complete numbers from all of region four’s counties, but that means finding people in every county willing to search, survey, and report back. That’s a work in progress.
By 10 a.m., the surveyed homeless are handing in their tickets to gain entry to a disused building in downtown Lafayette where they can warm up and eat. Tracy from the church garden is there, and so is Anthony.
There’s a sign-up sheet on the wall for haircuts, given by hairstylist Rocky Young in a back room.
Anthony emerges from his own haircut with a freshly shaved head and a grin. He sees the nurse, and in a few days he’ll get antibiotics for his ear. A good day.