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Last week, I participated in my first Point-in-Time Count, the regional homeless census coordinated semi-annually by Homeward. I spent most of the day in a coordinating role, but I did have the opportunity to survey one person – “John.” The first survey question asks, “Where will you sleep tonight?” John answered with the response no one wants to hear, “outside.” As we continued, he was friendly and open through all of my questions. That night, I walked outside into the bitter cold and was smacked by the reality of his situation. John will be sleeping outside tonight. This reality made the survey seem silly to me – How was the information I just collected going to make a difference to John as he sleeps outside in the freezing cold tonight?

Wherever I travel around the Richmond region, whether I’m out for a run or driving to a meeting, I keep my eyes peeled for signs of neighbors living on the margins – in unexpected places not meant for human habitation. I scan bridge underpasses, vacant lots, and even the field behind my local library branch for signs of life. Working in homeless services over the years has made me aware there are many faces of homelessness and that they are often invisible. I keep this lookout mostly so that we don’t miss these hidden people during our next count of people experiencing homelessness.

Homeward released initial findings from its 14th Winter Point-in-Time Count. The twice-yearly census provides a snapshot of the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single day. Preliminary results reveal 1,040 people in the region experiencing homelessness on January 26, 2012. This number reflects a 5.6% decrease in the number of people overall experiencing homelessness, with a 10.9% decrease in the number of people living on the streets in our region, from January 2011 to January 2012. After a spike in family homelessness in 2011, the number of homeless children is returning to 2010 levels.

Last week, I was captivated by the search in Hanover County for little Robert Wood, Jr. I, along with everyone else in the region, checked Twitter, Facebook, and local news sites for updates on the story as it developed, hoping for the best outcome. And, of course, I was relieved along with everyone else when the news came that he had been found. I was struck by three things from that story: how law enforcement reached out to experts for help in understanding everything about the child so that they could ensure that they were searching in the most effective way; how Capt. Mike Trice’s certainty that Robert would be found helped to make that true; and how the community came together to achieve a goal and to support one another during the process.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness just released a report anticipating an increase in homelessness in the next three years due to continuing economic difficulties. This year, more of our neighbors have experienced the destabilizing crisis of homelessness.

“So, is this what it’s like to be homeless?”

After 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, which resulted in widespread and lengthy power outages, Homeward ran an ad in the Richmond Times-Dispatch with the following text:

We’ve been scrounging for food. Reading by flashlight. Begging for batteries. Going days between showers. Thanks to Hurricane Isabel, we’ve experienced firsthand how tough it is to be without. Now imagine not having a roof over your head at all. Or having a chemical dependency. Or suffering from paranoia. Or answering to two small children. And it’s not even winter yet. Unfortunately, homelessness won’t go away when the power is restored and the roads are clear.

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