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Where did you sleep Jan. 26? – SC Times

Where did you sleep Jan. 26?
Volunteers and organizers will be asking people experiencing homelessness that question now and through Jan. 31. The goal is to get as accurate a count as possible of Minnesota’s homeless population, said Sheila Moriarty, an assistant professor in social work at St. Cloud State University and part of the group conducting the count in Central Minnesota.
The more accurate the count, the better funding from government and nonprofit sources can be allocated to the areas that need it. The count is taken nationwide every January, directed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We try to get as accurate a picture as possible, so we can identify the need in our area, and hopefully bring additional funding for housing and services to the community,” said Candace Harren, human services supervisor for adult mental health and chemical dependency services for Stearns County.
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The federal government goes by point-in-time counts because it is so resource intensive to count this population, Moriarty said.
“We’re trying to count people who are not easily counted,” she said. What the numbers really provide is a snapshot of the situation in a particular time and place. Results for 2017 will be available later this year.
The numbers can be alarming. In St. Cloud schools, experts estimate 360 kids in the district were counted as homeless during the 2015-2016 school year. That number is likely low, Moriarty said, because it does not include some pre-school-age children.
“That’s always a statistic that someone who doesn’t deal with poverty finds hard to believe, because there’s no way to know what that looks like,” Moriarty said.
In 2016, 669 people were counted as homeless in the Central Minnesota Continuum of Care region, which includes St. Cloud as well as Stearns, Benton and Sherburne and 11 other counties. Continuum of Care is a strategic plan to organize and deliver housing and services to reduce the incidence of homelessness.
About one-quarter were considered unsheltered, while the rest lived in emergency or transitional housing. Nearly 28 percent were children under the age of 18. More than 90 people were considered unaccompanied youth, ages 16 to 24.
Only about 3 percent were considered chronically homeless. But nearly 20 percent reported being severely mentally ill, and about 11 percent reported chemical dependency. Nearly 15 percent reported being victims of domestic violence and 25 people identified as veterans.
The count can determine how much funding an area gets for prevention and reduction efforts as well as emergency, transitional and permanent housing. Each continuum in Minnesota can access more than $20 million each year. The county employs a homeless outreach worker who attempts to find and connect with people experiencing homelessness, providing resources and help as needed.
The point-in-time count includes not only people who are traditionally thought of as homeless, but anyone who lacks housing.
That often includes people who are already working, but can’t get enough hours or have a high enough wage to afford stable housing.
Also included are people who are not sheltered or without stable housing. That includes people who use shelters including Place of Hope, the St. Cloud Salvation Army and Church of the Week, where area churches host overflow from shelters. Also included are people living in motels because they’re unable to find permanent housing, people doubling up with friends and family or couch surfing, people sleeping in their cars or camping outside. Some people in those situations may not ever consider themselves homeless. Many may be waiting to get into a shelter or affordable housing.
“If you go around to economical motels — I did that last spring — I found a number of families sort of stuck there because they’re renting history prevents them from getting into an apartment, or they’re waiting to get into a shelter or unable to get into a shelter,” Moriarty said.
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Children and families are of particular concern to local experts. There’s also concern about unaccompanied youth, teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 who are on their own. Many come out of the foster care system.
“Sometimes, they are really struggling to transition into independent living,” Moriarty said. “Often times, those young people are really at risk for exploitation.”
Unaccompanied youth are vulnerable to sex traffickers, and a substantial number in that group say they’ve traded sex for shelter.
Affordable housing remains a challenge. In Central Minnesota, a tight rental market has led to higher rents and low vacancy rates, which mean landlords can be choosy about whom they rent to.
“Rental prices really are pricing people out in the area,” Moriarty said.
Other risk factors include a criminal background, which makes it difficult to find jobs and housing, chronic and persistent mental illness and chemical dependency, Harren said. 
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Organizers prep for the point-in-time count each year, reaching out to people who work with the homeless and at-risk population. They connect with churches and food shelves, especially in rural areas, so they can reach as many people as possible. They also connected with liaisons in school districts who track and connect homeless kids and families with services. 
“We tried to get the word out. We know we won’t get out to everybody and we know not everybody is going to want to be counted,” Moriarty said. “At the same time, the better we can do of getting an accurate number, the better we can do giving people an accurate idea of the need.” 
Volunteers collect some basic demographic information as well as how long and how often the person has been homeless. All responses are collected anonymously. 
Still, the number are estimates and are considered by experts to undercount the population. There’s no good way to determine just how much that’s happening.
“For that question, I don’t think there’s ever any way to know,” Moriarty said, the actual number at any given time. 
Follow Stephanie Dickrell on Twitter @SctimesSteph, like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sctimessteph, call her at 255-8749 or find more stories at www.sctimes.com/sdickrell
If you or someone you know should be counted among the Central Minnesota population experiencing homelessness, call 320-204-6022, now through Jan. 31 to be counted.
For more information on getting services, and to donate to or volunteer for groups working to prevent and end homelessness, call 211 or visit unitedwayhelps.org or your favorite nonprofit organization. 
For more about homelessness in Central Minnesota, particularly kids experiencing homelessness, visit www.sctimes.com/homelesskids


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