Agencies keep tabs on homeless

Local aid groups and organizations banded together Wednesday to count the area’s homeless.

While final numbers will be estimates and released later this month, officials say the numbers appear to be similar to recent years.

In the past 10 years, the number of people living in poverty has increased about 61 percent in Catawba County, with areas like Sherrills Ford being deemed some of the poorest in the region, according to U.S. Census data.

In 2010, an American Community Survey estimate found that more than 20,000 people in Catawba County were living in poverty — a growing number that area non-profit organizations say could outgrow the existing resources available.

Housing Visions: A Continuum of Care, the area’s collection of aid and support groups, conducts the homeless count each year.

The count is conducted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which requires the Point in Time Count (PTC) for any group seeking to apply for its federal funds.

Based on the count numbers, HUD awards funding that can be used by area agencies for different programs, such as its Shelter Plus Care program.

Catawba County has received several Shelter Plus Care grants in recent years and currently operates eight apartment units under the program, said Teena Willis, PTC coordinator and housing coordinator for Mental Health Partners.

“They work as a bridge for people until they can get true Section 8 housing or an alternative,” Willis said.

The PTC is not just about funding, though, as it gives Housing Visions a rough idea of the shear numbers of homeless in the area.

In addition to counting locations at the First Presbyterian Church in Hickory and the First Methodist Church in Newton, Housing Visions volunteers counted the homeless at area aid organizations like The Grace House, Salvation Army and other meeting places for the homeless.

Groups also counted homeless in several area “tent cities."

The homeless are usually very cooperative with the count, said Jamie Sales, system of care coordinator at Mental Health Partners.

“By coming, they get lunch, they get a backpack and can have a health screening,” Sales said. “They know they are going to get some goodies when they come here.”

For volunteering their time and answering a survey, the homeless receive assorted goods in return. If they are living on the street, they get a heavy-duty backpack filled with a tarp, canned foods, deodorant, a flashlight and batteries, shampoo, socks and other necessities. If they are in “transitional housing,” they receive winter clothes, blankets and toiletries.

All counted homeless received lunch, which was provided by the Hickory Chick-fil-A.

The count also allows homeless to have health screenings for HIV and other issues.

At the First Presbyterian Church in Hickory on Wednesday, most of the homeless were open with staff who asked survey questions, including “Where will you sleep tonight?” and “What is your reason for being homeless?”

Everyone, including Jeffrey Hahn, provided different answers.

Hahn, a middle-aged Hickory native, walked nearly two miles to add his name to the count.

After attending Catawba Valley Community College recently for four years using Pell grants, Hahn became unemployed and spent most of his nights at the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter in Hickory.

When the summer came, Hahn got a job with the traveling fair as an equipment hand and he ended up in Georgia, where the job eventually ended and he came back to Hickory.

Hahn is now homeless again.

“I’m in a tent,” he said. “I go to the (Salvation Army) for supper…breakfast. I go to the soup kitchen for lunch.”

During this time of year, Hahn said the cold is usually bad. Thanks to warmer weather and a heater, he said he’s doing all right.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better — it’s a lifesaver,” he said of the heater.

Despite Hahn’s situation, things appear to be looking up. Thanks to several local ministries and volunteers, he’s had several interviews recently, including one last Friday.