Homeless count puts face to 'invisible' problem

Volunteers gathered late last month to conduct Ashtabula County's annual "Point in Time" count, a federal survey of the area's homeless population. From left to right: Riis Smith, Eddie Greathouse, Justin Stilson, Catholic Charities of Ashtabula County Assistant Director Jill Valentic, Dia Fleming, Mary Bleding, Brittney Howell, Matt Butler, Joyce Kren, Sarah Masek and David Thomas. Not pictured is Alice Harden.

Submitted photo

ASHTABULA — Catholic Charities of Ashtabula County conducted the 2018 count of the city’s homeless population late last month, but county coordinators’ work continues until the county’s final report is due to the state on Wednesday.

At 8 p.m. Jan. 23, a group of area social workers and officials organized a 10-hour search for those whom 

Catholic Charities Assistant Director Jill Valentic says

are often “invisible” — 

unassuming people one passes in public who, in truth, live on the periphery, relying on public shelters or holing up in abandoned homes or crude shacks.

Though this year’s “Point in Time” count — overseen across the country by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, each year during the last 10 days of January — and its follow-up surveys are about done, the state likely won’t release the figures until much later in the year, she said.

According to the 2017 data, 346 county residents, among 268 households, received homeless services last year. Most of those individuals ranged in age from 25 to 54 years old, but there were at least 58 were juveniles. More than half reported their homelessness was related to a mental health condition.

Across Ohio, homelessness decreased 3 percent last year. It’s down almost 20 percent since 2010, according to HUD.

The annual PIT counts aren’t “the best census” of a given region’s homeless, but “it’s an organic snapshot of the homeless in our county,” Valentic said Thursday. Though counts are usually performed over 24 hours, starting at night, this year’s was set to span only 10 hours. She said she’s not sure why.

“What’s really kind of cool about it is it’s really the only time where the homeless population are really given full attention throughout the county,” she said. “We’re looking at everyone, as a person-centered approach. When we’re talking to that person, we’re looking and seeing what needs they have.”

This year’s PIT surveyors usually come from the mental health and addiction counseling sphere or had experience working with homeless at Samaritan House, the city’s only shelter, Valentic said. While they’re collecting data to send to the state, they’re also pointing homeless toward assistance programs.

“It’s amazing how (the homeless) are able to cope with things,” said Joyce Kren, 71, a regular food pantry and church outreach worker and a first-time volunteer for this year’s count. “They’re living like I couldn’t live.”

For the first time this year, Sub Zero Mission of Painesville joined the count, Valentic said. The nonprofit tours the region providing warm clothes, sleeping bags, tents or other items for homeless people — “because nobody should freeze to death in America,” according to the group’s mission statement on its website.

The count happens each January — often a poor time for an Ashtabula County survey, as brutal winters force homeless to seek shelter, possibly skewing the results. Valentic said the goal is to start additional, seasonal counts throughout the year.

Though this year’s and previous counts were focused in the city of Ashtabula — as it’s a hub of resources, public transportation and potential shelter for the homeless — locally-coordinated seasonal counts could happen elsewhere in the county, she said.

“We have people who are (in) institutional homelessness. To say, ‘once a year is our time to assist people’ — we’re always helping people who are homeless,” Valentic said.

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