A count of Portage County's homeless population indicates there are upwards of 90 people living on the streets or in their cars this winter. That's an educated estimate by social service workers based on the count made Jan. 22 by county housing service volunteers and VISTA members. This count is mandated nationally by HUD to determine the status of homelessness in communities across our nation.
This year's count occurred on one of the coldest nights of the winter so far. That usually pushes the homeless into places they can get warm for a while until they're told to "move along."
Cathey DeBord, shelter services manager for Family & Community Services Inc., said the count found 31 people representing households living in homeless shelters and already receiving services. Another nine individuals, living primarily on the streets, met with volunteers during the count. DeBord said anecdotal evidence indicates there are 30 to 40 more people living on the streets who did not talk with volunteers. That information comes through the various hot-meal programs around the county, which serve as a way to keep in touch with the homeless and guide them to other services as necessary.
DeBord said the count, which is "pretty stable" from year to year, is mostly men, although there are a few single women in the mix.
"We do have homeless families, living in cars, but we have other resources for them," DeBord said.
The core of the homeless population is unknown and unnoticed by most of the rest of the community. And, she said, it's a population that isn't going to use traditional services.
Most of the homeless don't want traditional housing, don't want the restrictions, she said.
"They're not asking for housing. They need to not be moved all around." On really bad nights, DeBord said the homeless look for places to keep warm -- a library, a fast food restaurant or an all-night store. But after a while someone will "tell them to move along," she said.
"They don't want to be moved around. That's part of the disruption -- people sic the police on them." What the community needs is a "not move along place" for the homeless, DeBord said.
"What do they need? Access to the most basic of needs: Warmth on the frigid nights; food. Amenities such as a place to take a shower and wash their clothes are a welcome luxury," she said. F&CS is partnering with the Portage Community Chapel to provide showers at F&CS' headquarters on Oakwood. Showers are open twice a week for men and twice a week for women, she said. There's a laundry and donated soap available for people to wash their clothes. The operation is overseen by volunteers from the church.
"But more than anything, they need to have a place with the rest of us. They may live by different rules, but they are worthy of dignity and a community that acknowledges them. They have much to teach us about who we are as individuals and as a community," DeBord said.
Many people are suspicious or afraid of the homeless, afraid of someone with mental health issues. The homeless population in Portage is a diverse group, DeBord said, "but generally speaking they're not some violent criminal you need to be afraid of."
DeBord said her approach to serving the homeless is to "find out what they need and figure out how to get them what they need -- find out what we can do to make their live a little easier."
"First, our community needs to understand that most of our street homeless are people who are unwilling or unable to live by the conventions of those who are housed. This is not a crime,": DeBord said. "Most of the street homeless do not complain and are willing to live with this trade-off. They belong to their own small community, but they are also members of the larger community."
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