The commitment to connecting with people in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, North Carolina was evident during their Point-in-Time (PIT) count, starting in the evening on January 30th and ending late the next day. While temperatures reached an unseasonably warm 71 degrees earlier in the day, by the time the volunteers gathered at Bethesda Center for coffee, snacks, and training, the temperature had dipped to 54 degrees, with driving rains and threats of tornados and flooding giving an even deeper sense of urgency to the work the volunteers were embarking on.
“This is a search and rescue operation!” stated Teri Hairston, Program Assistant for the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness at the United Way of Forsyth County, during the training. “We see this as a chance to connect with every person who is homeless, and even if we’re just planting a seed for later, we use what we learn tonight to help everyone get into housing”
Community partners, led by the Homeless Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, worked for months to plan for the count, bringing in a diverse range of people and agencies to ensure that every detail was covered. This year, the community was also one of the nine communities involved in the Youth Count! initiative, which involved a distinctly different strategy than the outdoor count. Together, these two initiatives helped to create a comprehensive picture of homelessness in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.
After learning from youth, partnering with schools, the Department of Social Services, and agencies that serve youth, a plan was formed for this initiative. Outreach to youth started a week prior to the count through schools, shelters, and community case managers and on the night of the count, a Youth Count! drop-in site was opened downtown where any youth would be welcome, no questions asked. Counselors with experience in foster care, LGBTQ issues, and other situations that youth experience were present, as were youth and adult volunteers who were happy to play games, watch movies, and just talk with participants. Volunteers were trained to conduct anonymous surveys with the youth that would inform the Point in Time count, and most youth volunteered to participate in the count.
That evening, the Point-in-Time count team helped connect youth to recovery, financial, and counseling services and also they talked about housing options. The team was thankful to have created a space safe enough for youth to share their experiences and connect with help they need, but organizers learned that navigating community resources is often difficult for youth, and that there are limited housing options – a challenge identified for youth experiencing homelessness across the country. Fueled by the work for this initiative, Winston-Salem and Forsyth County have opened a door to better understanding and responding to the needs of youth experiencing housing crisis and homelessness in the community.
The Unsheltered PIT Count
A mile down the road, volunteers gathered to prepare for going out in teams of four and five to survey people sleeping outside, under bridges, and in cars. Teams were made up of seasoned volunteers, new recruits, people experiencing homelessness, and outreach workers. Volunteers learned about how to conduct a count from PATH Outreach workers (http://pathprogram.samhsa.gov/Default.aspxb) so by the time they left, they felt prepared.
The teams canvased the city until early in the morning. When they encountered people, they first asked their age. If they were 24 years old or younger, they invited the young adult to go to the Youth Center so they could get inside for the night and connect with important resources. If the person was an adult, the teams surveyed the person using a state-wide PIT count survey developed by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness.
Teams were also able to offer up bags filled with vital resource information, zip lock bags, gloves, hats, socks, toiletries and other non-perishables to everyone they encountered.
While people didn’t provide their names for the anonymous survey, PIT count teams were trained to engage each person in a friendly conversation, inviting them to spend the night in the shelter. For that night, anyone would be welcome to the shelter no matter what had happened in the past. If they agreed to accept shelter, or if a youth wanted to go to the Youth Count! site, PIT count team members would call a central number that would dispatch outreach workers James Asbury and Obie Johnson. They would arrive on scene to pick the person up and offer not just a safe ride, but further opportunity to connect.
The next day, as the torrential rains cleared up and the sun pushed through the skies, volunteers at shelters, community centers, and soup kitchens continued to reach out to people, surveying anyone who had not been surveyed the night before. The Homeless Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County will use the information from surveys, insight from adults and youth, and the new partnerships and relationships formed through the PIT count to inform their strategic actions as they continue to work to end homelessness in their community.