From the managing editor’s notebook: A snapshot of homelessness in Kalamazoo

NowKalamazoo’s Kristie May helped conduct a nighttime count of anyone sleeping outdoors within Kalamazoo County. Here’s what she learned.

The Point-in-Time (PIT) count is a literal count of people experiencing homelessness in a community on a single night. It must be done at least every other year for a community to receive certain federal funding for homelessness. On Monday night, I joined 27 volunteers to help conduct a count of those considered unsheltered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This includes individuals and families who may be sleeping in tents, cars, parks, camping grounds, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations, or parking lots.

There was a stalled start as organizers reworked their maps after learning many people moved from their usual outdoor sleeping spots out of fear of being surveyed. They’re skeptical of people’s intentions, plus there’s the paranoia of being found and cleared out by police according to informants.

I was placed into team one, along with five other volunteers, to survey the westside of the city. A boundary was set in between the U.S. 131 bus route and West Kilgore Road from north to south, and between 4th street and Westnedge Avenue from east to west. For the nearly 3.5 hours we spent searching (our group was one of the earliest to wrap up for the night), we found three people who were willing to participate. Observation forms were filled for two who did not want to answer questions. Slight surveying was done additionally, in this and other select areas, by more experienced volunteers at later times in the night according to organizers.

Two of the three unhoused participants were initially hesitant with us, expressing that police had been by a couple days before demanding they leave the area soon. NowKalamazoo has not yet confirmed those reports with law enforcement, however the Continuum of Care (which leads the count) says all municipalities were notified ahead of time about the PIT count.

There was some frustration from the same two participants who say their expressed needs have been unmet for a substantial time.

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Studies have found PIT count results can miss large segments of the unhoused population. A 2017 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness faults the methods (directed by HUD) for a significant undercount of the unhoused population. Director of Continuum of Care, Patrese Griffin, acknowledges the room for improvement. She’s already bringing about change, with this year’s first open invitation to community members to participate. She says the response was greater than her team imagined, with 21 of 27 volunteers being first-timers. That’s something Griffin considers a telling sign of what’s happening in Kalamazoo.

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