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'You can't manage what you don't know': Ardmore Homeless Coalition begins count to better understand homeless population

Sierra Rains
The Daily Ardmoreite
Grace Center Executive Director Laura Akers completes a survey with one of the organization's clients who is experiencing homelessness. The survey is a part of the annual Point-in-Time Count, which provides a snapshot of the homeless population in the United States and communities like Carter County.

The Ardmore Homeless Coalition began a major step toward better understanding Ardmore’s homeless population Tuesday morning. 

Staff at the Grace Center began surveying individuals experiencing homelessness bright and early Tuesday morning, at 6 a.m. The surveys are being collected as a part of the Point-in-Time Count, an annual survey of homeless individuals in the United States. 

The counts are conducted by local agencies called Continuums of Care on behalf of the Unites States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ardmore falls into the Southeastern Continuum of Care, one of the largest in the state. 

By 10 a.m., Grace Center Executive Director Laura Akers said they had already counted 18 individuals. The counts are normally done by sending out individuals to survey those staying at homeless camps or elsewhere, but the Southeastern Continuum of Care decided to use a different method this year.  

“With COVID-19 the message from HUD was that safety comes first,” Akers said. Throughout the morning of Jan. 26, Akers and others at the Grace Center sat with individual after individual, conducting the survey through a shield of plexiglass. 

The surveys collected by the Grace Center are among three survey formats submitted to the federal government. Shelter programs in Ardmore, including the Family Shelter, Children’s Shelter and Salvation Army will be counting individuals at their facilities on Thursday night to get a better picture of the homeless population that has shelter.

The sheltered survey includes slightly different questions from the surveys the Grace Center is administering, which cover those who are without shelter or who are on the brink of homelessness. 

Organizations like Impact Ardmore that provide housing assistance or services for those who are at risk of homelessness will also be completing the third survey format with their clients. 

“There’s three counts but ultimately we’re going to get some very key data that we haven’t really collected in Carter County before at this level,” Akers said. “We will know how many people are experiencing homelessness, how many people are staying in our shelters, and how many people are at risk for homelessness.”

The 24-question surveys Akers began conducting on Tuesday morning contain a range of questions, beginning with “Where are you sleeping tonight?” 

“We know based on some surveys we’ve already done that the individuals doing the surveys have been sleeping on the streets, they have been sleeping in camps and they have been sleeping in abandoned buildings,” Akers said. 

One man told the staff he had spent the night sleeping at the Carter County Detention Center, and Akers said they have had others that have been recently released from the detention center. 

“That information is just crucial as far as understanding who is experiencing homelessness in our community,” Akers said. The questions also help collect key demographics like ethnicity, age and gender, as well as veteran status and the length of time an individual has been experiencing homelessness. 

The answers on Tuesday morning ranged from a couple of days, to 10 months, to 10 years. The survey concludes with a set of more sensitive topics, asking the person about their substance use history, mental health conditions, physical disabilities and criminal history. 

The individuals have the option to not answer the sensitive questions, but Akers said no one had any objections Tuesday morning. One man who came in that morning told Akers he had a physical disability limiting his activities, which ultimately resulted in him being out of work and homeless. 

Three questions on the back of the survey also aim to address current issues being seen in the local community. The questions consider whether the individual has been recently released from a hospital, behavioral health or substance use treatment center, or discharged from the criminal justice system. 

“We at the Grace Center have noticed that one of these three is sometimes the most recent situation that led to someone’s homelessness,” Akers said. The survey doesn’t come with names or identification but it does give a snapshot of the number of individuals experiencing homelessness due to certain sets of circumstances, like domestic violence or mental health conditions. 

Akers said the federal government recommends the count, which has been shown to be effective in helping identify areas of need and create services to help alleviate homelessness in communities. 

“When you have data and information like that you really can apply that toward current services or expanding services and building a system of care that applies to everyone, including those that are at risk of homelessness,” Akers said. 

Carter County has submitted numbers in the past, but the organizations participating in the count and providing data from surveys has been very low. “It’s not representative of the number of people that we believe are needing services,” Akers said. 

Each organization participating this year has members who are a part of the Ardmore Homeless Coalition, a driving force behind the 2021 count. The organizations have each set aside several hours to perform the count on three separate days this week. “We’re very proud of that effort,” Akers said.

With increased participation from organizations within the Ardmore Homeless Coalition this year, Akers said they hope to get a more accurate picture. The final data will likely be available in mid to late February. 

Once that data is available, Akers said the coalition will be able to share the results with funders and private individuals who want to see change and can help bring about programs or solutions that may be impactful in certain areas. The data can also be used to apply for federal or state grants. 

“You can’t manage what you don’t know,” Akers said. “Having numbers like this will help us with the work we’re doing at the Ardmore Homeless Coalition and agencies like mine.”