Counting West Virginia's Homeless Brings New Challenges In Pandemic
Caseworkers who work directly with West Virginia’s homeless population conducted the annual point-in-time count last week, measuring the number of individuals experiencing homelessness on one of the coldest nights of the year.
“Most people who are going to be sheltered are sheltered during the last ten days of January,” said Matt Hedrick, who coordinates the count for the West Virginia Coalition to End Homeless. “The people we find on the street… have nowhere else to go.”
The count measures people either staying in shelters or on the street. And it has been adapted to keep volunteers and clients safe from transmitting COVID-19.
Instead of sending out teams of volunteers to conduct the street count, Hedrick will rely on an existing database of those experiencing homelessness and receiving services.
While the results of this year’s count won’t be known for a couple of months, he has some expectations.
“There are a lot of people entering the system who have never been in it in terms of the homeless service system, and that are newly experiencing homelessness,” said Hedrick, “That’s kind of what we’re anticipating.”
Researchers say the point-in-time count is the best data available but even in a normal year comes with a lot of caveats.
Many people who are experiencing homelessness don’t want to be counted,” said Daniel Brisson, executive director of the Center for Housing and Homelessness Research at the University of Denver. “Or don’t want to be seen, don’t want to be known, don’t want to be found, don’t want to talk to other people.”
He says there are many predictions that homelessness has increased during the pandemic but he honestly doesn’t know what the count will show.
“We know the point-in-time is not a perfect tool,” said Brisson. “Whether the tool can capture homelessness in this new environment is still to be seen,”
Brisson says it’s important to listen to people on the ground because the data might be inaccurate.
Lisa Badia, the executive director of the Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless, said she’s seen something like this recession before.
“The last time we saw a real increase of people who were experiencing a housing crisis for the first time resulting inevitably or imminently, homelessness would have been back at the early onset of the fracking industry,” said Badia, who has worked with this population for 27 years.
As fracking companies relocated workers into the Northern Panhandle, rent prices increased by 58% between 2011 and 2014.
After rent went up, the number of first-time homeless families increased by 300% between 2015 and 2016, according to data from the Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless.
Over the same period, the number of families headed by a single father who became homeless for the first time increased by 600%.
Since the pandemic began, she said there’s been an increase in the number of people who need financial assistance to help pay rent.
As people are becoming homeless in the Northern Panhandle, many for the first time, that sustained need has strained Badia's staff.
She has seen her entire direct staff change over the course of the pandemic. Long-time workers, some of whom had been with her for 19 years, have gotten burned out.
“I do believe this will be similar, although certainly, we’ve never undergone a pandemic,” said Badia. “That’s a whole different level of fatigue.”