These numbers are for homeless counts within the city of Lawrence. There were no counts in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
2001 — 1342002 — 632005 — 1122007 — 3732008 — 318
Source: City of Lawrence
Lawrence resident Peter Steimle spent his Wednesday morning performing a highly unusual task. As part of the nationwide Point-in-time Homeless Count, Steimle’s job was to walk through downtown Lawrence trying to find and interview homeless people.
Steimle did his best to look for people with an unkempt appearance — what he thought were characteristics of the homeless. He introduced himself to several people he thought were homeless and, after explaining what he was doing, was met with some uncomfortable smiles from people who explained they were not, in fact, homeless.
“You can’t tell a homeless person by looking at them,” said Steimle, who was one of about 20 volunteers conducting the survey Wednesday.
Steimle’s experience highlighted some of the difficulty in identifying and counting all the homeless in the county. While some homeless people can be found at local social service agencies, an untold number of others sleep in hidden places in the community.
“The challenge is reaching those not in shelters,” said Erika Dvorske, director of the United Way of Douglas County, which coordinated the count.
Results from the count, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be used in part to calculate how much funding the area receives for homeless services, she said.
Brad Cook, a homeless outreach worker from Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, was assigned the task of finding some of the more difficult to locate homeless population. Cook and fellow Bert Nash employee David Tucker canvassed woods along the Kansas River.
While they didn’t find any campers in the woods, they found evidence — small tents and a destroyed makeshift teepee — that people had recently camped in the area.
“If they know it’s for the government, they can be paranoid about it,” said Cook of the homeless population’s reaction to the count.
This year’s count is the first looking at all of Douglas County, while previous years’ counts centered only on Lawrence.
Results have increased sharply since the first count in 2001, when 134 homeless were identified. In 2007, the city counted 373 homeless. Last year, the number dipped to 318.
Margene Swarts, the city’s assistant director of program and development services, cautions that the numbers may have fluctuated, in part, because of different counting methods.
“It’s not apples to apples,” Swarts said.
While the accuracy of Wednesday’s count, which will not be available for several months, can be debated, the experience opened Steimle’s eyes to the need for increased services for homeless people.
“I’ve seen the need that’s so big that I want to help,” he said.