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Making sure the homeless count

Today, community officials and volunteers will make their best effort to get a reliable count of the homeless in Fort Wayne. The count determines how much state and federal help the community will receive.

The annual Homeless Point-in-Time Count is the day designated by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for cities to count their homeless. But determining the exact number is exceedingly difficult, because HUD has strict criteria for who is considered homeless, and not all people in need of shelter are willing to be counted.

The Fort Wayne Area Planning Council on Homelessness coordinates the annual count. Volunteers conducting the count will also be delivering backpacks filled with practical items, such as a hygiene kit, blanket and hand warmers.

“We try to make it clear that this is going to help us bring more resources to the community and that it will help them or people like them,” said Rebecca Karcher, director of community engagement for the city’s Community Development Department. “And we generally find people want to help.”

To be considered homeless, a person has to be staying at a shelter or sleeping outside or somewhere considered uninhabitable. Someone able to find temporary shelter with family or friends – someone couch surfing – does not count.

The council is putting a special emphasis on counting homeless veterans.

Naomi Nicastro, a council member and the homelessness coordinator for the local Veterans Administration, said they’ve gotten instructions from Washington to help to get a more accurate count of veterans so they can access the services available.

The VA offers specific help to veterans through two local temporary housing programs. Shepherd’s House has 36 beds for men battling substance abuse. And Liberty Landing has 40 beds, with four set aside for female veterans. It also offers a housing voucher program and case management to help veterans overcome issues causing homelessness.

“I’ve been working at the VA for 20 years, and I’ve never seen the VA work this hard to address homelessness,” Nicastro said.

Unfortunately, homelessness in this area is growing. In 2011, the council counted 468 people, and in 2012 it counted 558. But the homelessness council’s efforts today will ensure more of these people have access to help.