The faint hues of morning light snuck through pockets of crumbling darkness early Thursday morning, spotlighting 13 groups of volunteers on a mission to count those who spent the night on Vancouver streets.
Every January, communities across the United States canvass the streets and other service settings to identify and count the unhoused. The head count is obligated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and feeds into Congress’ yearly report for how many people are experiencing homelessness. On Jan. 26, Clark County completed its annual count.
In Vancouver, the lull of morning traffic was a faint background soundtrack to Coordinated Outreach Manager Cody Shaw as he knocked on the door of an eggshell white mobile home parked on the outskirts of Clark College.
“Hello, this is Cody, outreach for Council for the Homeless. Are you awake?” he said. The occupants declined to speak to Shaw, but the outreach manager was able to collect surface-level demographics like how many people were in the RV.
Shaw then pulled out his cellphone and logged the data into a national app to help organizers track how many people were talked to in Vancouver.
When someone does consent to talk, volunteers would ask them demographic-focused questions about their name, age, and gender. Volunteers would also ask people where they slept the previous night and if this is their first time experiencing homelessness.
“The Point in Time Count is important because the data collected is often used to determine funding and show what our needs are. It’s also an opportunity to really get a picture of what (the city and county) is experiencing in terms of homelessness,” Shaw said.
Shaw spent about two hours searching for people, his backpack weighed down by hygiene kits that contained basic necessities like toothbrushes, deodorant, and cleansing wipes. Bus passes also were slipped into the kits, which outreach workers would pass to community members and tell them about Project Homeless Connect.
Connecting people to services
At 9 a.m. sharp, the doors to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church opened, and a steady stream of community members made beelines for the haircut station or cuddled their pet close to them as they waited to be seen by a veterinarian at the pet clinic.
Phillip Dick first stopped by the MPS Lifeline table and walked away with the promise of a new phone.
Right after the Point in Time Count, the Council for the Homeless held its annual resource event called Project Homeless Connect. The event provides a variety of services, benefits and hands-on care. This year, the council contracted Thrive2Survive to help manage volunteer and vendor recruitment.
One of which was MPS Lifeline. The company is designed to give low-income families free phone services, helping them connect with case managers, doctors, lawyers, employers and family. Dick, who has been homeless on and off in Clark County for four decades, hasn’t had a phone for about five years and was grateful for the assistance.
“The people here and the different departments they have here are very nice. They’re willing to help you out for any reason,” said Dick, who plans to use his new mobile phone to coordinate volunteer work with Living Hope Church.
Other free-of-charge resources featured at the event were COVID-19 vaccines, dental care, haircuts, legal services and a clothing closet for attendees. The one-stop event also provided information on veterans and disability services and career options.
“People experiencing homelessness are human beings that deserve this kind of dignity and hospitality and access to services. This is an amazing opportunity to do that every year. We need to remember that when you’re experiencing homelessness, surviving becomes your full-time job … and so Project Homeless Connect (helps) connect people to these services,” said Laura Ellsworth, strategic partnerships and advocacy manager for the Council for the Homeless.
Beyond resources, Project Homeless Connect is another way for Council for the Homeless to count unhoused community members. As people trailed to the church’s entrance, volunteers would ask them questions similar to the Point in Time Count to assess the demographics of the unhoused population.
Staff will then spend the next couple of months making sure there are no duplicated people and then release their findings to the public.
“We have Project Homeless Connect in conjunction with the Point in Time Count on the same day because the goal is to offer a place for people to go and get services and hospitality that can help them resolve their homelessness but also get counted at the same time,” said Ellsworth.
While staff canvassed people behind her, Tina Heiser sat by the front entrance, her lap filled with goodies and brochures that she collected while making her rounds of the building.
Heiser lives in low-income housing and said that events like Project Homeless Connect are essential in Vancouver because they can lend a helping hand to all community members, especially as prices rise due to inflation.
While most voiced their praise for the event and the opportunity it lends to community members, others are frustrated by the event’s altruistic demeanor. Tim Ruggiero feels like it only scratches the surface of the work that needs to be done to address the county’s homelessness.
Despite the services offered, Ruggiero still needs to get the assistance he needs to get housed.
“They’ll look at a place like this, say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? So many helpful organizations,’” Ruggiero said. Meanwhile, he said, he feels ignored most other days of the year. “The question is, why isn’t homelessness seen as an indictment of society?”
Even though Clark County’s service and housing providers can’t meet everyone’s needs, Project Homeless Connect can serve as a stepping stone to getting people back on their feet.
Charles Hanset, the founder of Thrive2Survive, knows the impact services and a helping hand can have on someone. Hanset has been housed and sober for nearly six years, and he sends a grateful nod toward the resources provided to him during his journey.
“I was able to come out of that suffering with a lot of resources that ultimately helped me out of homelessness. Since then, resources have been a plethora of silos that have been broken down in our community and across the state as well,” Hanset said. “For that reason, Project Homeless Connect is true and near to my heart.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.