The volunteers met at 6:30 Wednesday morning to make their plan. They then fanned out into the woods in and around Westminster as soon as it was light enough to see their breath in the frosty dawn air.
These were the field teams of the annual Point in Time homelessness count, which helps county agencies assess the size of the local homeless population, and except for an hour or so break taken for lunch, they would trudge through snow and brush until after 4 p.m.
"We wanted to be trying to find people before they head to the areas like the library and On Our Own, where people come in the daytime to get out of the weather," said Rick Schoenfeld one of the field team leaders. An employee of the Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc., Schoenfeld hit the woods as a member of the outreach committee of the Carroll County Circle of Caring Homelessness board, an organization that brings together agencies that work to reduce homelessness, of which HSP is a member.
"This morning, [we] found two people. We found a lot of other sites: places that were snowed over, covered up, places that are abandoned, places that were destroyed," he said. "This afternoon, we found another six people."
This was Schoenfeld's fourth year counting homeless people living outside, and he said the timing — it's always held in the last week of January — means that the weather is always a factor.
"Last year when we went out, it was after a horrific snowstorm and … we found zero [homeless people] out in the woods," he said. "There was nobody that was going to be living outside in that time period last year, when the snow was up to our knees."
One thing the winter weather does bring home is just how rough living outside can be for a person with few other choices, said Amy Rupp, a first-time field team volunteer.
"The fact that we didn't find anybody outside last year is a good sign that they are using the shelters," she said. "You would freeze to death if you didn't have the right stuff, and I didn't realize it until today when we approached the first tent that that could be a reality. It just for some reason didn't even cross my mind. So every tent we came to, we made an effort to make sure there was not a body inside."
No one was found hurt or freezing to death on Wednesday and, in truth, a larger portion of the Point in Time count takes place indoors than out in the woods.
According to Amy Baker, program director for recovery services at the Carroll County Health Department, who oversaw this year's count for the Circle of Caring, virtually every institution that cares for or interacts with the homeless and low-income people at risk of homelessness also participated in the count, including the cold-weather shelter, Carroll Hospital Center and Carroll County Detention Center.
"We can use the numbers [from the count] for future grants and funding opportunities," Baker said. The count also involves a survey of the population, which Baker said can be used to learn more about what homeless people themselves say they need or would like to see.
To help get a better understanding of those needs and further the efforts of the count, the Circle of Caring also held a Community Resources Fair at the Ascension Episcopal Church in Westminster, bringing representatives from 12 to 15 services organizations together with homeless people during the church's regular Wednesday soup kitchen lunch.
"We probably had 65 to 70 people there, most of them homeless on the street or in shelters," Baker said. "You can see there is definite need, and it is a real problem."
The Point in Time count is not simply something useful for county agencies, however. It is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that any organizations that receive HUD funding provide a count of the local homeless population on one of the final 10 days of January, according Niki Edwards, a rgional public affairs officer with HUD. In Carroll County, HSP, the Department of Citizen Services and the Health Department's Shelter Plus Care all receive HUD funding.
"The purpose of the annual Point in Time count is to measure homelessness and to determine if progress is being made in reducing it," Edwards said. "While the Point in Time count informs where the community might target its resources, it does not determine the funding level."
Funding, Edwards said, is determined by Congress, but on Tuesday, HUD announced that it would be granting $48.3 million in funding for anti-homelessness programs in Maryland for the coming year, $371,312 of which will go to programs in Carroll County.
This is the amount of money that Carroll County asked for in order to continue HUD-funded programs, according to Rita Zimmerman, deputy director of the Carroll County Department of Citizen Services, which is the lead agency when it comes to applying for HUD funds.
"The amount that we applied for, the maximum that we could in each program that was eligible for renewal, we received," Zimmerman said. "Our funds were cut yes, but that was nationwide. In the application process, HUD told us we are had to cut each program but by a certain amount, and we did so."
According to Edwards, last year Carroll received $380,891, putting those programs cuts at $9,579.
The reduced funding does not appear to have altered the downward trend in homelessness as gauged by the results of the past Point in Time counts however. According to data provided by Miranda Gregory, a data analyst at the Carroll County Department of Citizens Services, there were 211 homeless people counted in 2010, 179 in 2011, 167 in 2012, 134 in 2013 and 124 counted in 2014.
HUD statistics have shown a similar downward trend nationwide.
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"Since 2010, local communities around the country reported an overall 10 percent decline in the total number of persons experiencing homelessness," a HUD news release stated.
The 2015 data will be released in HUD's Homeless Assessment Report to Congress next fall, according to Edwards.
There are limitations to the Point in Time count however, and not all the available data indicate that homelessness is actually dropping in Carroll County. According to numbers from HSP Executive Director Cindy Parr, the number of homeless clients served in one of HSP's shelters, including intact family, men's, women's and cold-weather shelters, has increased over the same interval the Point in Time count has gone down: HSP shelters saw 400 clients in 2010, 458 clients in 2011, 424 in 2012, 466 in 2013 and 522 clients in 2014, 55 to 63 percent of whom were new to the shelter system.
"The tricky thing with the Point in Time is that it is one day when you have to try to find people," said Corina Canon, at HSP. "The Point in Time tells us the number we can easily find or count, but we also know as a community that there are many people doubled up … Some people can find a place to stay for a week, a day, a month, and then their luck runs out."
At the same time, Canon said, it would be a mistake to look at the 522 clients HSP shelters served last year and assume that at any given time there were more than 500 homeless people in Carroll County based on numbers gathered over the course of 12 months. The true number, she said, is probably somewhere in the middle and perhaps a bit more complicated to calculate.
"One of the things I think is counterintuitive is each year the Circle of Caring tries extra hard to reach more people, and we are actually finding less of them," Canon said. "In a way it's good, because the number of homeless is going down. But we don't know if the number is actually down, or if we're just not finding them."
Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or firstname.lastname@example.org.