Featured photo: Volunteers met at the William C. Sims Recreation Center on Jan. 31 to help conduct a count of Forsyth County’s unhoused population.

A chilling 38 degrees hit Winston-Salem around 9 p.m. on Jan. 31.

Still, most people would shrug it off for a quick run to the grocery store, knowing that they have a toasty car and a warm home to return to.

But for many in Forsyth County, going home isn’t an option. 

During one of the coldest months of the year, Continuums of Care (CoCs) in counties around the country conduct Point-in-Time (PIT) counts. This count is required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development at least every other year to create a snapshot of how many people are experiencing homelessness in one night. The number of people counted also correlates to how much funding and resources the federal government decides to give communities.

According to data from last year’s PIT count, 650,000 people were experiencing homelessness across the country, a 12 percent increase from 2022.

In 2022, Forsyth County counted 351 people, from those staying in shelters to those who were sleeping outside. Of that count, 139 of them — or almost 40 percent — were unsheltered individuals.

From members of Samaritan Ministries to United Way to city staff to the police department, multiple community entities gathered at the William C. Sims Recreation Center to help facilitate the event. 

Tash Lane is the strategic volunteer engagement director for United Way, an organization that is part of Forsyth County’s CoC. This is Lane’s second PIT count. 

“My first one was making observations in preparation for this year,” Lane said.

“This year we’ve encouraged a lot of our homeless residents to make themselves visible so they can be counted,” Lane added. “It’s very important for us to touch every area of Forsyth County.”

‘How can people be so cruel?’

As the hours passed and January turned into February, Forsyth County’s PIT volunteers scanned the streets for unhoused residents between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.

The work was broken into multiple shifts throughout the night, with volunteers spread across cars in a caravan.

At 11:30 p.m., local activist Dr. Arnita Miles drove with volunteers such as United Way President Dr. Antonia Richburg to find people living in areas around University Parkway, Peters Creek Parkway and Hanes Mall Boulevard.

Some volunteers who actively work in the unhoused community like Miles recognized familiar faces and knew where to take detours along the route to make sure that as many people could be counted as possible.

Once volunteers made contact with people or a group, they offered socks provided by the city and gave away coats and bags of snacks and necessities as well as gift cards. People were asked to fill out a survey that included their names, veteran status, if they have any chronic conditions and other information.

While shelters are available, there’s limited bed space, leaving many to spend the day figuring out where they’re going to sleep at night. To stay safe, many unhoused people sleep in the same area as other unhoused people. 

Community is important.

One unhoused woman said that when she did have housing, she gave unhoused friends a place to stay. Now that she’s in the same situation, those people have shown up for her and helped her out.

Someone even had a six-month-old puppy. While volunteers gave his owners snacks and toiletries, he chewed on discarded bones in the parking lot.

While a blanket and some snacks might help them get through the cold weather, it’s only a drop in the bucket. Finding restroom facilities or a place to wash up can be challenging if people are further from places that have mobile showers like City With Dwellings.

TCB spoke with volunteers who worked closely with the unhoused. They say that businesses are making it difficult for people to use their restroom facilities or even a laundromat. Someone they knew bought a meal at a restaurant and took it to the seating area outside. Then they were told to leave.

“If someone came into my home and took all my things without me knowing, that’s very invasive,” Lane said. But this is the reality for many unhoused residents in Winston-Salem.

Lane said that one unhoused person was living on property that was city-owned.

“The city came and it was announced that the city was gonna take his stuff,” Lane said.

But the clean-up crews came by early. “They took all his stuff.” This leaves an unhoused person with nothing, and they could potentially lose important medications.

“He was devastated. He was literally laying on the concrete in a parking lot, just curled up and had been crying all day,” Lane said. “It’s their residence, it’s their home. It may not be a traditional home but it’s their space.”

One individual TCB met had experienced horrors simply for existing as an unhoused person.

Someone once found his encampment, doused it in gasoline and set it on fire. This happened at night, and he was lucky he wasn’t there, or worse yet, sleeping.

“How can people be so cruel?” a volunteer said.

What changed from last year?

During last year’s count, the group TCB rode with met one unhoused person.

This year, they encountered 5-10 people every hour.

Guilford County’s numbers are trending upward, too. Last year, their volunteers counted 34 unsheltered people. This year they counted more than 200, according to Greensboro’s Housing and Neighborhood Development Director Michelle Kennedy.

Last year, Laura Lama, a data system administrator for the city, instructed volunteers to capture information that would help outreach workers who were “trying to find that person to follow up” after the count.

“Describe where you saw them, what they were wearing, if they have a dog with them,” Lama said. But this wasn’t as big of a focus during this year’s count.

The group also came across encampments that were clearly inhabited, but their occupants either weren’t home or didn’t respond to calls from volunteers.

During training, volunteers were instructed not to count people who are staying in a hotel or sleeping on someone’s couch.

Still, Lane said that this year, they had “a lot more volunteers, just a lot more engagement.”

And some things stayed the same. Respect and privacy remained at the forefront, and volunteers were told to remember: “You are a guest in their home.”

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