On Wednesday, January 27, volunteers across Wyoming set out to find the state’s homeless. Many gave out lunch and hot drinks, and all carried surveys for the homeless that asked questions like “Do you drink alcohol?” and, “How often do you stay in an emergency shelter?”
The 2016 “Point in Time” count took place across the country during one twenty-four hour period at the end of January. The count tallies all homeless people in a given area who are on the street, or in an emergency shelter. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development used the data gathered to track homelessness, and it plays a part in helping divvy up federal funding.
Nationwide, about seven percent of the homeless live in rural areas. But finding them all in a single day can be tough. Volunteer Jennifer Cruz drove around Cheyenne all morning and didn’t identify any homeless people.
“They are not out in the open like they are in a larger city, because they find places,” Cruz said during the car ride. “I just met a gentlemen who has been sleeping on his brother's couch, but he is homeless.”
And for state homeless advocates that’s actually a problem—if someone has a bed the night of the count they won’t be counted as homeless.
That’s the case for Dale Dean, who, on the night of the count, was staying on a friend's futon in the low-rent Pioneer Hotel in downtown Cheyenne. That night the COMEA house, Cheyenne’s only emergency shelter, was completely full. It’s often packed to capacity, but Dean said he never has to sleep outside—he can always find a friend willing to share their couch for the night.
For all practical purposes Dale Dean is homeless. But this year, he won’t be counted as such in the Point-in-Time count.
“We have to use the HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] definition of homelessness,” said Wyoming Homelessness Coordinator Brenda Lyttle. “And the HUD definition of homelessness is someone who is living in a shelter, or in a place not meant for human habitation. What that means is we cannot count folks who are in a hotel.”
HUD’s logic counting the homeless in January is that the cold weather will drive people into emergency shelters, where they are easier to find. Shelter space is in short supply basically everywhere, but Lyttle said the lack of services is especially pronounced in Wyoming and other rural areas. In Wyoming, homeless people tend to “double up” with friends or family, or sleep in cheap motels, during the frigid winter months. Lyttle said when even a few homeless people aren’t counted it can make a difference in the amount of federal funding the state receives.
“We need to really figure out a way to get an accurate count.”
Rick Garcia has heard these complaints before. He’s the Denver administrator for HUD. But he points out the point in time count is meant for the entire country: rural as well as the urban areas where most homeless people are congregated. Los Angeles counted over 40,000 homeless people last year—Wyoming counted about 800.
“We are aware that the count certainly is not perfect,” Garcia said. “But I think the goal is that we have a count at one time of the year.”
But the point in time count is just one of many challenges that those seeking to end rural homelessness face, says National Coalition for the Homeless Director Megan Hustings.
“The greater number of people who are experiencing homelessness happen to be in urban areas. But there is often a higher percentage of people experiencing homelessness and poverty in more rural areas.”
Hustings says being homeless in a rural area like Wyoming is just logistically difficult. For one thing, rural areas lack the public transportation that big cities have. So the homeless often need access to a car to reach things like the food bank and subsidized medical care. While in some rural places there just aren’t any services at all. Wyoming has no emergency shelter space west of Casper and east of Jackson.
Wyoming homeless advocates say they want to do the best they can with the funding they can get, but to do that they need to know how many homeless people there are in the state.
That’s why they’re putting on another, unofficial homeless population count this year—in the summer.