A Point in Time: Homelessness in Lynchburg

Care networks take a survey to estimate the numbers on homelessness in Lynchburg.

Early morning Jan. 24 before dawn, volunteers wore raincoats and boots to fend off the rain as they gathered in the wet parking lot of Miller Park.

They split into groups and chose areas of the city to cover. Amber Teer, Coordinated Homeless Intake and Access Coordinator for Lynchburg, led her group through Miller Park.

Her cellphone flashlight darted over the soggy ground and dripping trees. Behind her, two social workers and a social work intern from Centra Health carried waterproof backpacks full of food and toiletries.

Every year on a day late in January, volunteers spread through Lynchburg searching for people who have spent the night outside. The search is called the Point in Time Count, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires it for homelessness care networks across the country.

The count helps each care network, called a Continuum of Care, understand homelessness in their communities. It also determines government funding for homelessness response.

In 2018, HUD estimated there were 5,975 homeless people in Virginia. The Central Virginia Continuum of Care estimated 112 homeless in Lynchburg by last year’s count, including those sleeping in shelters. That dropped from 125 in 2017.

Teer headed this year’s count planning committee for Lynchburg. She said knowledge of where homeless individuals sleep would help the volunteers search strategically.

“The hard part is, in our community,” Teer said. “I think there’s probably more people sleeping in abandoned houses.”

By 6 a.m., neighborhood residents were headed for work and waiting at bus stops. After stopping to chat with one and determining he was not homeless, Teer chuckled.

“Too dry,” Teer said. “Too dry to be homeless.”

Throughout the day, volunteers stationed themselves at public spaces like libraries and service centers such as the Daily Bread to survey homeless individuals who came for service.

“We don’t have to physically see them sleep outside,” Teer said. “We’ll ask them, ‘Where’d you sleep last night?,’ and if they say [they] slept outside, we will do the survey.”

Michelle Bauman, the homeless street outreach coordinator for Miriam’s House and the Community Access Network, found multiple homeless individuals during the morning count, including one sleeping on the back porch of an abandoned home.

“The front porch was clean as a whistle,” Bauman said. “But the back porch—one. Who we did not rouse.”

The volunteers carried two surveys created by HUD, wrapped in plastic bags to keep them dry. One survey records observations of homeless individuals who are found asleep or who do not want to answer. The other asks specific questions about the person’s history and cause of homelessness.

Lynchburg’s Continuum of Care added an extra question: “Have you…attempted to access a shelter bed but been denied?”

Teer said the question will help shelters determine if certain intake requirements should be adjusted. For instance, she said some shelters require birth certificates for children, which homeless individuals do not always have available.

As the sun came up, the volunteers gathered at Miriam’s House for coffee and donuts, and to dry off and collect damp surveys.

The count is continuing and the numbers are expected to be released in the spring.

Eaton is a Lynchburg News reporter.

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