Volunteers Hit Arizona Streets To Count Homeless Population

Published: Friday, January 29, 2016 - 4:35pm
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Lauren Gilger/KJZZ
Every year, since 2002, the Maricopa Association of Governments conducts the Point-in-Time Homeless Count.

Every year since 2002 the Maricopa Association of Governments conducts the Point-in-Time Homeless Count. It captures what homelessness looks like in Maricopa County and across the country on one night, at one point in time.

This year, more than 300 volunteers hit the streets on January 26 for the count. They were split up into small groups and assigned grids to cover during the early morning hours of the day, looking for encampments, shopping carts, cardboard boxes and backpacks so they can track the homeless population in the county. The count is critical in securing millions of dollars in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development every year to pay for shelters and transitional housing programs.

Volunteers count the homeless people who they encounter and survey as many of them as possible. They ask a series of questions, including each person’s age, race, gender, if they drink alcohol or use illegal drugs, if they’ve been physically or sexually abused, if they’ve experienced a traumatic brain injury and if they have any psychiatric or emotional conditions.

On this year’s count, some people were willing to give their names and others aren’t willing to answer any questions at all.

Volunteers John Willard, Anne Marie Johnston and Julie Wonsowicz-Moore helped this year as they scoured the industrial neighborhoods near Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix.

“Things change in the homeless population, like with any population, and so understanding the demographics, understanding the needs, helps us better serve them,” Willard said. “We can’t do that behind a desk, you know what I mean?”

This team of three is invested in the homeless more than most. They work for one of the state’s largest behavioral health providers, Community Bridges. They understand there’s always a story behind someone sleeping on the streets.
“Everybody just sees somebody drunk or high. They don’t see what caused that, the trauma or the mental illness,’ Willard said.

Last year, the Maricopa Association of Government’s Point-In-Time Homeless Count tallied more than 5,600 homeless people on the streets and in shelters across the county.

The number of homeless people has generally been going down across the county in recent years, according to Anne Scott with the Maricopa Association of Governments, and last year’s total in Maricopa County was down almost 300 from the year before. But, that does not mean every homeless person that volunteers meet on the count is looking for help.

Willard, Johnston and Wonzowics-Moore encountered about half a dozen homeless people in their assigned area on the count this year. Most of them agreed to be surveyed, but many declined when they were offered services. Many also readily admitted to having been abused, and to using illegal drugs. But, that doesn’t deter this group of volunteers.

“A lot of us at Community Bridges are in recovery,” Johnston said. “And we think back to our crisis and the hard times that we went through and how many times it took me to go to treatment, how many times I tried and failed to get clean and sober.”

Johnston works as a peer support and outreach supervisor for Community Bridges. She’s a “peer,” to those in recovery, she said, because she has been there before. Until she was 33 years old, Johnston said she had a good job, a family and kids. She became addicted to methamphetamine and spent the next 10 years of her life in and out of jail and prison. Her experience helps her meet patients where they are when they come through the door, she said. It also helps her to keep offering help whenever they are ready to take it.

“Nobody could have helped me until I was ready, so I have to look at it through my own experiences. What did I go through? How many times did somebody try to force me to get help and get treatment?” she asked. “You just keep trying because one day, they’re going to get it. And when they do, I want to be a part of it.”

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