Volunteers Take Census of City's Homeless Population 

New initiative aims to house all the city's homeless by 2016.

It's around 5:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, and the temperature is hovering in the high 30s. But it's warmer inside the Memphis Area Transit Authority's (MATA) North End Terminal, and that's where a homeless man named Anthony has found respite from the cold.

Jane Hooks, who helps house the homeless through nonprofit Promise Development Corporation, is sitting on a bench next to Anthony, clipboard in hand, asking him a series of questions for the annual Community Alliance for the Homeless (CAFTH) Point In Time (POT) head count.

Over three days last week, more than a 100 volunteers combed every Memphis neighborhood by car and by foot in an effort to get an accurate head count of the city's unsheltered population. It's required biannually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but CAFTH performs the count each year.

click to enlarge Volunteer Jane Hooks surveys a homeless person at a MATA terminal. - BIANCA PHILLIPS
  • Bianca Phillips
  • Volunteer Jane Hooks surveys a homeless person at a MATA terminal.

The final count — of both sheltered (those in temporary housing or homeless shelters) and unsheltered (those who spent the previous night sleeping outside) — will be available on Thursday, when CAFTH will announce their participation in a new ambitious national campaign to house all chronically homeless people by 2016.

"Our goal is to have no homeless veterans by 2015 and no chronically homeless people by 2016," said CAFTH Executive Director Chere Bradshaw.

Called Zero 2016, the campaign is a follow-up to a previous national homeless housing program that Memphis participated in. That campaign, 100K Homes, aimed to get 100,000 homeless people into housing nationally, and Memphis volunteers set a goal of housing 100 people. The goals were reached, locally and nationally, this past July.

The POT count isn't just for statistics' sake. Volunteers interview each homeless person to determine whether they qualify for available housing, and that will help CAFTH toward its Zero 2016 goal.

"We ask questions, and we score them. And depending on how you score, you're added to a list. And then those with the highest need get served first as housing becomes available," Bradshaw said.

Back at the MATA terminal, Anthony, 48, tells Hooks that he was just released from prison the night before, after serving five months. He had nowhere to go, so he slept on a bench at the terminal. He tells her he'd been homeless on two separate occasions prior to going to prison.

On that Friday, the volunteers in Hooks' group only found three homeless people at the MATA terminal and no other homeless people on a walk through parts of downtown. Bradshaw said she had a similar experience with her volunteer group, which also surveyed downtown and the Lamar/Airways area.

She's hopeful the overall count will be lower this year, as a result of the successful 100K Homes Campaign.

"I think there are less people," Bradshaw said. "Court Square Park was empty, and we went down to St. Mary's, but the people there had already been counted [by another volunteer group]. And I went to the Lamar/Airways area, where we found a lot of people in a 2012 count, but we didn't see them this time. It makes me hopeful."

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