Thursday, June 20, 2024

Tri-county homeless count 60% higher than last year, numbers of unsheltered children on the rise

Data collected by the Cape Fear Continuum of Care for 2023 shows 558 individuals identify as homeless, up from 347 in 2022’s count. (Port City Daily/File)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — The number of homeless individuals in the tri-county region has spiked since last year, along with a jump in the number of children unhoused, including those living on the streets without families.

Data collected by the Cape Fear Continuum of Care for 2023 shows 558 individuals identify as homeless, up from 347 in 2022’s count. However, the number of chronically homeless — assessed as having been without shelter for at least six months at a time, more than once — decreased from 92 to 88. The number of homeless children under the age of 18 also rose by 14%.

READ MORE: Five-part series addresses cost of homelessness, funds allocated by governments, nonprofits

Council of Governments director Judy Herring said this year was one of the most “robust” counts, since Covid-19 was less prevalent and associated risks were lowered. Herring attributes some of the dramatic increase to the cost of housing.

“We think the end of the Covid eviction moratorium played a role because even though the moratorium ended in 2021, there was still money to help people meet the need for past due rents,” Herring explained. “As those resources were spent out, those households that were cost-burdened pre-pandemic had fewer tools to ensure housing stability once the moratorium was lifted.”

The CoC — made up of more than 50 nonprofits focused on homeless services — hosts a point-in-time count annually in January. Volunteers are dedicated to gathering numbers on one day for each county — New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender.

While the raw data collected, including demographics of individuals, still has to receive the official stamp of approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, CoC has released its results online.

A fiscal agency for federal supportive funds, the CoC first collects the head count either digitally or on paper, combines it and checks it for accuracy before submitting it to HUD. The federal agency then compiles data from agencies across the country to make policy and funding decisions. 

CoC doled out nearly $750,000 in federal funds last year and plans to distribute roughly the same this year.

There is about a two-year lag time between local data being sent to the feds and a final homelessness report. Last year’s data collection is still not considered finalized.

Homelessness is not defined as only living on the streets. The HUD definition includes people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing and vehicles. The common factor is none of the people surveyed have a permanent place to stay.

Of the 500-plus individuals reported as homeless in 2023, 224 said they were staying in emergency shelters and 75 were in transitional housing. These counts are up from 138 and 59, respectively, from 2022.

Nearly double the number of chronically homeless in the 2023 report are staying in an emergency shelter compared to 2022.

CoC director Judy Herring told Port City Daily earlier in the year the final counts are never a full-representation of everyone without permanent housing in the area, as not everyone agrees to be counted. Still, the numbers have value.

“It’s a representative sample as opposed to every single individual,” Herring said, adding the count is only one of many data points HUD uses in its national reports. 

She estimated in any given count there are 50% to 100% more people who are actually homeless in the community than accounted for.

Herring also said in order to count everyone, there would need to be tools in place to eliminate the risks associated with homelessness. She added this could include “involvement with child protective services, criminal trespassing charges, loss of jobs, harassment, and similar challenges that stem from intolerance or misunderstanding.”

The CoC gathers information from a few places. Volunteer teams — of more than 20 in New Hanover’s case — go to areas where people experiencing homelessness congregate. They interview them to collect information, such as name, age, gender, ethnicity, access to shelter and food, and history dealing with violence.

CoC also gets information via people who have entered its coordinated entry system — the intake assessment to guide anyone seeking assistance — and reports from area shelters.

For the first time in 2023, the CoC also hosted “Homeless Stand Down” events to persuade people to be counted. The events also connected people with services and  items such as socks, gloves, hats, toiletries, blankets, bus passes, backpacks, and gift cards. 

New Hanover’s was held at the Harrelson Center in downtown Wilmington and Pender’s at Pender County Library’s Burgaw branch in its neighboring county. 

It was also an opportunity for the CoC to make connections with organizations it has never interacted with, such as an assistance program to help veterans get hearing aids and other assistive technology.

“Obviously the field surveys of people who are literally homeless are the hardest to collect, and it’s not only because of location, it’s also because you have to respect the individual’s right to participate,” Herring said. 

Anyone who declines can’t be counted.

Most people do speak to volunteers, though they may not choose to provide information for every data point. The results are delineated by sex, gender, age, race and shelter status.

The largest age group of homeless people, 117, were between the ages of 25 and 34. In 2023, the data breaks down age groups in more detail; whereas in 2022, everyone over the age of 24 was lumped into one category.

In both years’ data, males reporting as homeless outranked females, yet in 2023, there was a more drastic divide with 40% more males than females; seven identified as transgender. 

When it comes to the 35 households with children, there are double the number of females than males.

Child homelessness is also prevalent in the region. 

“We know that, nationally, children were our fastest-growing population of people who are homeless and we have Covid, where people were able to shelter in place for a period of time with the moratorium on evictions,” Herring said. “We didn’t necessarily see a spike in that, but now that we’re coming out of Covid I would suspect that because of the financial conditions, the cost of housing, we may.”

In last year’s data, 50 out of 347 people recorded experiencing homelessness were under 18, more than double the 20 people between ages 18 and 24.

This year 64 children under the age of 18 were counted as homeless, and 55 were ages 18 to 24. 

Herring said, at the time of the count, she expected child homelessness to be at the same level or worse due to the difficult housing market. Most homeless children live with a family, including 44 of the 64 in 2023. 

The data also shows unaccompanied homeless children have risen to 20 from seven in 2022.

The tri-county school systems also count students 18 and younger through McKinney-Vento programs in each district. A federal act, McKinney Vento provides funding and education resources to children who do not have a “fixed, adequate regular nighttime residency.”

In New Hanover County Schools, there are 845 students identified as without a stable place to live. According to NHCS spokesperson Russell Clark, there are another 100 younger siblings or those in pre-K not yet in the school system.

According to Pender County Schools, McKinney Vento coordinator Jessica Biel, there are about 120 kids in the program. Brunswick County reported 256 in 2021-2022; McKinney Vento district lead Meredith Lloyd said she would provide PCD with updated numbers. This article will be updated to reflect that change when provided.

Brunswick also reflects the largest number of students in the program in the last six years in 2018 with 457. It’s the same year Biel said she had up to 1,000 students in her system, following the damage caused by Hurricane Florence.

Herring said one challenge to getting an accurate count of children experiencing homelessness is families fearing their unstable situations will not remain secret.

“The minute your unstable housing situation becomes known, you risk a relationship with child protective services that does not end well for you, for at least a period of time,” Herring said.

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