Fortesa Latifi

Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018

Counting on conversations with people who are homeless to reveal respect, gain resources

Charmaine Tyler curls a blanket around her shoulders as she sits on a curb in downtown Phoenix, bracing herself against a 37-degree predawn in three tattered sweaters, sweatpants, socks and sandals.

Anne Scott approaches with a smile and a clipboard.

Good morning, ma’am. I’m talking to people who may be homeless for our survey. Can I ask you a few questions?

Where did you sleep last night?

Is this the first time you’ve been homeless?

If you had to pick one thing, what would be most helpful to you right now?

Scott, who works for a government planning agency, has trained for these few hours on the streets of downtown Phoenix. Dozens like her have spread across sprawling metro Phoenix in what’s officially known as the Point-in-Time Count of the homeless. The federal government requires all states to conduct a count to maintain federal funding for a variety of programs.

The count is meant to help people – sometimes right away, sometimes months later – by identifying the resources they need.

To help, “we need to know who they are, where they are, and understand the factors that led to their homelessness,” according to a website for the Maricopa Association of Governments, or MAG, the regional planning agency that oversees the annual headcount.

The count brings resources to an issue rooted in urban America. Experts say the surveys capture a snapshot rather than complete view of homelessness because of difficulties in counting families and those in jail, as well as a reliance on self-reporting. Still, the in-person survey, which is conducted across the Valley from dawn to noon, may be the single largest county-wide conversation between people who survive on the streets and people who have homes to return to every night.

The overall number of people who are homeless has remained relatively stable over the past three years, according to Point-in-Time, which distinguishes between homeless people in shelters from those living on the streets.

But a closer look at the data is more troubling. The number of people living without shelter in Maricopa County has nearly doubled since 2014, to more than 2,000 last year, according to MAG.

Tyler, who’s 25, said she has been living on the streets in Arizona for 18 months. She isn’t sure whether her family knows she’s homeless, but, even if they did, she doesn’t think they’d help her.

“They have their own lives,” Tyler said. “Now that I’m almost 26, in March, I’m pretty responsible for myself and my own actions in life.”

Scott looked at Tyler as Tyler spoke, only breaking eye contact to record her answers. Then she thanked Tyler for her time and walked on.

Scott, a human-services planner for MAG who has worked on the count for several years, said she was disturbed to see more young people than usual this year.

“The surprising thing is, we’ve talked to a couple of very young folks under 25,” she said. “And I think it’s always heartbreaking to see young people on the streets.”

The agency takes months to enter responses into a database and analyze the data; preliminary data is expected in March. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires headcounts to guide policy and funding that is providing more than $38 million to organizations in Arizona.

Sometimes in the middle of a count, census takers immediately send help to those in dire need. Nonprofits are placed on the alert during the count.