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Homelessness Point-In-Time Count begins in Central Florida

Volunteers begin arriving at the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida headquarters in Orlando on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. On the left, Richard Vaughn, a six-time volunteer, was waiting for the rest of his group to start their three-hour shift counting the number of people experiencing homelessness locally.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
/
WMFE
Volunteers begin arriving at the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida headquarters in Orlando on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. On the left, Richard Vaughn, a six-time volunteer, was waiting for the rest of his group to start their three-hour shift counting the number of people experiencing homelessness locally.

The Homeless Services Network of Central Florida began its annual Point-In-Time Count on Tuesday, surveying the Greater Orlando counties of Seminole, Osceola, and Orange counties.

The Point-In-Time Count is a federally-required event that counts the number of people experiencing homelessness in a certain area during a single night in January each year. This count is how organizations like the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida can apply for government grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Why the numbers matter

In Central Florida, an effort of hundreds of volunteers will spend the next three days walking around in groups, in a series of three-hour shifts, counting the number of people experiencing homelessness, as well as gathering demographic data.

HSNCFL CEO Martha Are said the numbers help HUD determine how much money the organization needs to help handle local homelessness cases.

Last year, the organization reported 2,258 people as experiencing homelessness, a 38% increase since 2022, and a “sobering” 75% increase since 2019, before COVID-19.

“It's certainly a lot of work, but also it can be kind of exciting because we do engage a lot of community members and volunteers who come to help and are part of the process,” Are said.

Are said the event also helps raise social awareness and lead to finding solutions.

“Is it going up? Is it going down? Do we see a difference in age? Do we see a difference in locations? All of that helps with our regional planning. Better information leads to better interventions and better results,” Are said.

Six-time volunteer Richard Vaughn of Ocoee reads messages on his phone, as he waits to serve his three-hour shift during the Homeless Services NPoint-In-Time Count
Shane Murphy
/
WMFE
Six-time volunteer Richard Vaughn of Ocoee reads messages on his phone, as he waits to serve his three-hour shift during the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida's Point-In-Time Count on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. In his tote bag, the organization gave him snacks, water bottles, clothes, and hygiene items to distribute to people experiencing homelessness.

Volunteers signed up from all across Central Florida. Richard Vaughn said this is his sixth year helping. The Ocoee resident was given a tote bag full of snacks, water bottles, and hygiene items, so he could help provide relief in case he encountered anyone who needed it.

He said the process helps humanize the issue of homelessness.

“After the first time I was out there, I realized you're talking to these folks out of the street and kind of getting a better understanding of who they are as people. You know, it's just not the person you saw in the corner with a shopping cart; there's a story behind all of them,” Vaughn said.

How the process works

According to Are, volunteers are trained and then scheduled in groups with someone as the leader. A list of questions are given to the volunteers, who are not to judge or dig deep but instead are supposed to take answers at face value.

The point, Are said, is to gather enough information to get an idea of how the situation is developing and to ensure no one person is counted more than once.

Vaughn said he is glad to help organizations get more funding that eventually helps the most vulnerable, especially as he notices the problem growing.

“We had 800 people surveyed this morning already, and this is the first day — and that was just the first two three-hour shifts this morning,” Vaughn said. “There were substantially more homeless people than there were last year, or the year before.”

Some volunteers who were returning from their shift said they had a different experience. Anna Ashie, housing operations manager at HSNCFL, said her group found about 40 people, but she was expecting more.

She said she believes it may have to do with local law enforcement in Orlando cracking down on homelessness. Still, she was happy to help provide outreach and spread their message.

“Surprisingly, it was harder to find people because I think of some of the recent legislation that's been taking place, making it harder for people to stay where they were. There were also several people who didn't want to participate, but we did give away lots of food, lots of underwear, lots of socks, lots of hygiene items,” Ashy said. “It's always heartbreaking to hear the stories of how people are arriving in this place, but we wanted to assure them that their participation in the survey matters. They count. Their voice matters.”

Orange County Clerk of Courts records showed that an average of more than five people deemed “transient” were arrested daily from Jan. 1 until Jan. 16 in Orlando. These numbers are for municipality violations alone, and not counting any arrests for charges such as other types of misdemeanors or felonies.

What the work reveals

Warren Foster, program manager at Orange Blossom Family Health Center, was one of the volunteers. He said he’s volunteered many times before, beginning in 2007. For him, one of the biggest differences he’s noticed year after year is the increase in urgency for proper healthcare.

He said the people they encounter don’t have Medicaid, Medicare, or family to help them.

“I'm noticing lately just the increase in the desperate nature of these medical needs. I mean, serious, serious injuries, amputations, and you just can't imagine people living on the street like this — yet here they are,” he said. “It concerns me that our medical system isn't more robust, so people are recovering on the street that should be in assisted living facilities or skilled nursing facilities.”

Foster said his group did meaningful work, finding people who would have otherwise gone uncounted without their efforts.

“We were able to find a fair number of people in parking lots and alleys behind dumpsters,” he said.

Warren Foster, program manager at Orange Blossom Family Health Center, talks with Anna Ashie, housing operations manager at Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, about their experience volunteering at the 2024 Point-In-Time Count in Orlando on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Ashie wore a black t-shirt that read, "HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT," in bold, capitalized, white letters.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
/
WMFE
Warren Foster, program manager at Orange Blossom Family Health Center, talks with Anna Ashie, housing operations manager at Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, about their experience volunteering at the 2024 Point-In-Time Count in Orlando on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Ashie wore a black t-shirt that read, "HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT," in bold, capitalized, white letters.

According to Foster, the event also helps the volunteers. He said the direct exposure to the situation and getting to know their neighbors experiencing homelessness helps bust some of the stigmatizing myths and misconceptions about the community.

He said one of the volunteers offended a woman who was just waiting for the bus when approaching her to ask if she was unhoused.

“It was really an eye opener for them, you know? You can't judge a book by its cover,” Foster said.

According to Are, volunteers’ findings have to be carefully verified before being submitted, Are said, and it could take months before a final report is published.

She said the organization expects higher numbers this year, as rent and housing costs in Central Florida have continued to increase.

Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.

Lillian (Lilly) Hernández Caraballo is a bilingual, multimedia journalist covering housing and homelessness for WMFE, as a Report for America corps member.
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