Featured photo: Richard Beck, who is currently unhoused, was counted by the Point-In-Time count on Jan. 25, an annual event that tracks the number of homeless people in the country. (photo by Gale Melcher)

Every year on the last Wednesday of January, volunteers from across the country take to the streets to conduct a count of people who sleep outside. 

City with Dwellings hosted this year’s Point-In-Time count for Forsyth County. Other organizations involved included Bethesda Center for the Homeless, United Way of Forsyth County, Samaritan Ministries, Veterans Affairs, City of Winston-Salem, Partners Behavioral Health Management and the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission.

The Point-In-Time count is a required activity at least every other year in order for Continuums of Care to receive federal homelessness funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Andrea Kurtz, executive director of Strategic Housing Initiatives for United Way of Forsyth County, explained this process to the crowd of volunteers gathered that evening. 

“We report this data to HUD, HUD then uses this data from the whole country and reports it to Congress, and Congress uses this information to help plan how much money they’re going to invest in homeless services,” she said. 

Kurtz added that across the country, homeless services have been very “helpful and meticulous” about how they invest money into programs that are best-practice oriented. 

“We’ve seen Congress really respond to that,” she said.

In an interview with TCB, Kurtz said that they’re trying to get a picture of not just how many people are sleeping outside, but who they are. 

“We know that’s changed a lot since COVID started,” she said. 

Kurtz explained that before the pandemic, the population of people sleeping outside was mostly single adults, the number hovering between 50-80 individuals. Now they estimate that around 250 people are sleeping outside, just from what they’ve learned through street outreach services.

John Mack, director of Outreach Services: Housing Matters for United Way, gave a quick presentation on how to respectfully interact with people sleeping outside. 

“When you’re going into people’s camps, these are their homes,” Mack said.

“When someone comes to your house, what do they normally do?” he asked, raising his fist as if to tap on a door. “They knock; “Can I come in?’

Mack instructed volunteers to approach people respectfully and announce their presence loudly. “When you go to the camps, you want to say ‘Outreach!’” Mack boomed. The respect in his voice resonated as much as his volume as he asked, “Can I have permission to come into your camp?” 

If the person feels comfortable answering a few questions, volunteers can collect some information about them. As a data system administrator for the city, Laura Lama designs the survey according to HUD’s guidelines.

“Describe what you saw,” Lama said. “Describe where you saw them, what they were wearing, if they have a dog with them, just something that will help the outreach folks later this week…[who are] trying to find that person to follow up.”

Point-in-Time volunteers Dennis Lambert, Adrienne Numaworse and Shereka Floyd, CoC Program Manager (photo by Gale Melcher)

Volunteers were also encouraged to ask people if they wanted to sleep somewhere warm that night. 

“If you encounter somebody that wants to come in for shelter… we will make arrangements to go pick them up,” Kathleen Wiener said. Wiener is the grants and projects manager for United Way of Forsyth County.

“Just let us know where you are; we’ll come and get the person,” she said.

Volunteers were split up into groups of four to six, grabbing bags full of essentials to pass on to people experiencing homelessness. Provided and packed by Partners Behavioral Health Management, these bright orange water-resistant bags included an aluminum blanket, socks, snacks and pop-up food cans, a first-aid kit, hand warmers, sunscreen, oral hygiene products, deodorant and more. 

The night was brisk and drizzly as the group piled into Shereka Floyd’s car. Floyd is the Continuum of Care program manager for the City of Winston-Salem. Her work includes applying for funds as well as managing the programs that receive funding. Floyd said that the entire county is mapped, including hotspots where they know people might be resting. People who may be sleeping in cars are also included in the count. 

“Anything that’s a place not for habitation,” Floyd said.

Volunteers’ shoes squelched up and down the muddy hills around a hotspot. One of the volunteers, Dennis Lambert, pointed out slippery spots to avoid. 

While driving around to other locations, volunteers encountered a parked car with what appeared to be tiny fingerprints peppering the bottom of a foggy backseat window.

Some campsites included only a few items such as a table and chairs, others had tents. Further on down the road the group came across a tent. 

“Would you like to stay somewhere warm tonight?” Lambert called out, but no one responded. He dropped a bag outside the campsite for the resident to find later.

Before returning to City with Dwellings around midnight, the group encountered two more people. After one of the volunteers asked if they’d like some bags, one of the men told them that he had just gotten an apartment after previously being homeless, but that his friend Richard Beck is still unhoused.

Gesturing toward his buddy, Beck said that he had a warm place to sleep that night.

But as for later, he wasn’t so sure.

Beck seemed a bit more at ease after connecting with Floyd, who offered to send him information that could help connect him to housing. Afterwards, he and his friend followed the volunteers back to where they had parked, continuing their conversation along the way.

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