Point-in-Time Survey begins, gives updated picture of homelessness

Point-in-Time Survey
Point-in-Time Survey
Posted at 10:44 PM, Jan 25, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-26 00:44:49-05

HELENA — On Thursday, volunteers spread out across Helena to get a better picture of the population experiencing homelessness in the area.

The United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area launched its annual Point-in-Time Survey, designed to provide a regular snapshot of the number of people living in shelters, temporary housing or without shelter. As the event began, Dominique Jackson, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was on hand to help with the count and to hammer home the importance of the data it’s going to collect.

“The people that we serve are not inside a building – they are all out there, they are all our collective neighbors,” Jackson told MTN. “And you can't understand what people need, what people are going through, what their lived experience is, if you are not out there talking to them individually.”

Point-in-Time Survey
Dominique Jackson, HUD's regional administrator for Montana and five other states, addresses volunteers as they get ready for the start of Helena's Point-in-Time Survey, organized by the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area.

Jackson, a former Colorado lawmaker who oversees six states for HUD, spoke to volunteers getting ready to go out for the count. She then spent some time surveying people at God’s Love Shelter.

Survey takers set up at four locations across Helena Thursday: God’s Love, Our Place Drop-In Center, Anchor Park and the parking lot at Walmart. They were collecting data on where people planned to sleep Thursday night and how much time they’ve spent without stable housing. People are identified only by initials and some general information.

Organizations across the country conduct Point-in-Time surveys in the last weeks of January. HUD uses the data to give a general picture of the state of homelessness and to make comparisons from year to year, to see what trends are occurring and how efforts to address the issue are working. The information also helps determine how leaders distribute resources. However, Jackson said, to her, the counts are about more than just gathering facts.

“There’s no science about it,” she said. “What it is, is having respect for people and just simply talking to them. It's not necessarily the easiest thing to do, and it's not easy for them to share because, when we talk about counting people, we're asking people to share things about their lives so that we can get meaningful information from them.”

Emily McVey, executive director of the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area, talks to an individual at God's Love Shelter in Helena, as part of the annual Point-in-Time Survey.

Jeff Buscher, director of community impact for the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area, says about 70 volunteers are helping them conduct the survey in Helena this year – about double what they had last year. Church groups provided food for participants, and volunteers handed out warm clothing as well.

Joe Wagner was one of the people doing surveys. He’s a graduate student at Carroll College, works with Many Rivers Whole Health and is involved with the local veteran community. This was the first year he’s been part of the Point-in-Time Survey, and he felt it was important to do it.

“These things are incredibly hard to organize – get volunteers, get this information,” he said. “As a professional, as a medical professional, as a community organizer in this area, it's a critical piece of information – so that way we can evaluate, we can create community value, organize donations and help these populations.”

The United Way says Helena’s Point-in-Time count indicated 93 unsheltered individuals in 2018, rising to 164 by 2023. Across Montana, the numbers jumped from 1,585 in 2022 to 2,178 last year.

Point-in-Time Survey
HUD regional administrator Dominique Jackson talks to an individual at God's Love Shelter in Helena, as part of the annual Point-in-Time Survey.

Jackson says it’s clear the challenges in finding affordable and safe housing are a major contributing factor – and they aren’t unique to Helena or Montana, but happening nationwide. She says the issue of homelessness generally doesn’t manifest differently in a rural state, but sometimes the responses to it do.

“Oftentimes when you're in a more rural community, people tend to know each other, and the solutions tend to come with a great deal of community will,” she said. “They're often quite innovative and creative and fit that particular community.”

Jackson said addressing homelessness isn’t something only one agency or organization can do by itself.

“It takes every single one of us, and it's so heartwarming to see communities step up,” she said. “It's so heartwarming to see neighbors caring about neighbors, and I thank every single one of them.”

The United Way says the survey in Helena is going to continue over six days. In the coming days, they’ll be talking to people at other facilities, like Many Rivers.