Volunteers to try to gauge homeless more thoroughly

Volunteers who will hit the streets Wednesday to try to get an accurate picture of the county’s homeless population will be looking in a few more places than in the past.

Instead of only counting people who primarily use shelter services and caseworkers in the city, dozens of volunteers will aim to count people across Douglas County. So that means checking under bridges and possible campgrounds during the state’s Point-in-Time Homeless Count survey, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Environment every other year.

“It’s going to give us some good comparative data across the state, and we’ve never had that before,” said Erika Dvorske, president and CEO of United Way of Douglas County.

Dvorske and Margene Swarts, the city’s community development manager, will be leading the effort from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday. It’s part of a statewide effort administered by the United Way of the Plains and sponsored by the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation and the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

Dvorske said it was necessary to get a more thorough count than just those who primarily use shelters. The count is necessary to get grant federal HUD funding.

“Are we doing what we need to be doing to meet their needs?” Dvorske said.

The attention to campgrounds and bridges in the county comes after the city cleared wooded structures from a homeless camp in October east of downtown. One week earlier, two men died in the area of reported drug overdoses. A few days later, police found the body of a 53-year-old homeless man, who died of natural causes, under the Kansas River Bridge.

But Dvorske said those incidents were not the catalyst for the more extensive search during this year’s count.

“The goal is not to identify those places. The goal is to make sure that we know the extent of homelessness in the county,” Dvorske said. “We’re not targeting or anything like that. We’re really trying to make sure that everybody does count. We can’t get federal funding to provide the services.”

Loring Henderson, director of Lawrence Community Shelter, 214 W. 10th St., said he expected results to be similar to the 373 people identified in the 2007 count because volunteers that year did a good job of checking under bridges and camp sites.

But volunteers will be trying to get extensive information from homeless people, which can help deal with a complex problem, he said.

“It will show the general public where the people are from, what caused it, and what kinds of issues there are,” Henderson said.