BELFAST, Maine — Waldo County doesn’t have any homeless shelters that are open to everyone, and that’s something that might be getting in the way of an accurate count of people who are without stable housing, according to advocates such as Allison Harrell. That’s why she and others are gearing up to try to get a more comprehensive figure of the county’s homeless and housing insecure population during next week’s annual national Point-in-Time count.
“If there is no shelter in your area, there needs to be some kind of count,” Harrell, who is part of the Waldo County Homeless Coalition, said Tuesday. “My hope is that this is a real opportunity to better understand the scope of homelessness in our community.”
County-level figures are not readily available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which mandates that the national survey is done every year during the last week of January. In 2016 — the last year which Harrell believes a coordinated community count was conducted — 20 people in the county were identified as homeless. This year’s survey will record people’s housing status on the night of Jan. 28, and she thinks it’s likely that more than 20 will be counted.
Homeless issues in Belfast made headlines last summer when a report stating a city official was giving camping gear to homeless people went viral. Last fall, the city was in the news again after a mushroom hunter discovered a derelict abandoned campsite on private property near the Stephenson Preserve. The trash-strewn site was blamed on a group of young people who had panhandled downtown over the summer.
Harrell, who helped coordinate an effort to procure donations of camping gear this summer for the homeless, said that it’s not uncommon for people to have an idea of what homelessness looks like. They may imagine people sleeping on sidewalks, or in a ramshackle tent, but that’s certainly not always the case, she said.
“I think that we have a really myopic view of how we see homelessness, and we jump to thinking about street homelessness,” she said.
The Point-in-Time count helps establish the dimensions of the problem of homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and can also increase public opinion and attract resources to stop the problem.
Communities that receive federal funds to assist the homeless are required to count all people living in shelters every year. Every other year, they must count unsheltered people living on the streets and in other places not meant for human habitation.
In Waldo County, housing insecurity may look more like people who are couchsurfing, who sleep in their cars, who are staying in abandoned buildings, in their own foreclosed home, under a bridge, in a shed, a garage or even in a motel or hotel, Harrell said. It can look like teens who stay over at their friend’s houses because they don’t have a safe home of their own.
Although couch surfing and otherwise staying with friends and family members will not count on the official government survey, to Harrell and the others in the coalition, it’s valid, too. That’s why they are also doing an addendum to the Point-in-Time count that asks those questions. The volunteers will gather their surveys next week and head to sites such as the Belfast Soup Kitchen, the Stockton Springs Community Library, the Monroe Community Church and the Unity Community Center in hopes of doing interviews with housing insecure people of all stripes.
“What homelessness looks like and what housing looks like across the community can be very different,” Harrell said. “We need to understand the full scope, and not pigeonhole people or make assumptions.”