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Annual Homelessness Count reveals increasing number of unsheltered individuals

The NWA Continuum of Care has been conducting an annual survey called Point in Time Count for Homelessness since 2018. This survey is required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development or HUD to allocate necessary funds and resources for housing support in the region. Last year, the survey found that 436 People in NWA were experiencing some form of homelessness. The count occurred in late January and revealed that 161 people were in emergency shelters, 24 were in transitional housing and 178 were living completely unsheltered.

John Gallagher, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas School of Social Work, has been in charge of the count for the past three years. He recently spoke with Ozarks at Large’s Jack Travis right after his team completed the 2024 survey. Gallagher said that this year, they have optimized the survey methodology to ensure accuracy and efficiency.

John Gallagher: Well, this year's count. So it's really, I mean, the process worked well. So that's, you know, mostly at this point, I'm able to think about process. So we had about 50 volunteers throughout the community, as well as probably another 20 People who are employed by shelters or other programs, conducting interviews with people. So, the process worked pretty well. You know, there's always some people who got sick at the last minute, but that worked pretty well. We won't really have numbers. Some reports trickle in, people completing paper forms, and we do some work with large shelter providers afterward just to kind of validate data and make sure we're not counting some people twice. And also make sure we're not missing some people that were known to sleep in their shelter on the night. So, we won't really understand the data until April or May of this year, as one will enter it to be reported to HUD. And we'll also report it here locally.

Jack Travis: Walk me through how you gather these statistics. What does an average day of a count look like for you?

JG: Sure. So it starts months in advance. And I should say I work closely with one of our MSW students through an internship. This year, it's Morgan Willoughby, so she started working with me in the fall semester. So we start we started recruiting volunteers. We do volunteer training, we coordinate with the programs that will do their own counting. And then, on the day of the counts, we just have people fanning out throughout the day. I typically start my morning; Morgan and I met up with some Fayetteville and UAPD officers, as well as a handful of other community and student volunteers around 8 a.m. in South Fayetteville, went out to camps that we wouldn't be able to physically reach without the four-wheeled vehicles that law enforcement brings. We will typically start the day here in South Fayetteville, but there'll be other people at the same time out in Siloam Springs and up in Bentonville with the Salvation Army shelter. We had a crew to start as their day was beginning. Then there'll be we have lots of people at the Seven Hills Day Center. There are some new day centers in Rogers: the Way Station and Hope Cafe, so we have volunteers and their staff there. And then the day ended for myself again out with Springdale PD and some more students at about eight o'clock on Friday night. And we also had some people at the Bentonville and Fayetteville Salvation Army shelter, probably finishing up around eight or nine o'clock.

JT: Were you seeing any trends that arose in the past year?

JG: I think so. If we step back to last year's data, I can talk pretty comfortably about trends. So, what we saw from 2022 to 2023 was a large increase in the number of people we counted. Part of that was I think we did a better job. So there were some kind of methodological improvements that I made that I think did pay off. But also partially, the numbers are genuinely going up. We see it nationally. It's very closely tied to the disconnect between housing markets and labor markets. It costs more to live in many places, and that's really very acute here in northwest Arkansas and getting worse every year. So we know the numbers are going up. So we saw an increase from roughly mid-300s to mid-400s. It's important to keep in mind that the Point in Time Count does have a lot of strengths in this one day where we count, but it also it pretty inherently undercounts. So those numbers, I encourage everyone to think of as a floor of the number of people experiencing homelessness in our community. There's always a lot more for one thing, just when you go out to try to engage people in camps, they're just, they're very well hidden, they're trying to stay out of sight to be safe. So it can be hard to find people.

It's a very, it's a good definition, but it's a pretty narrow definition. So a lot of people that, you know, if I was experiencing, if I didn't have a home of my own, and a series of friends put me up on their couch, I would feel pretty damn homeless, that we would not count such a person using this definition, which requires acute homelessness on the streets, or in a large shelter or in a shelter, it doesn’t have to be large. We also don't count a lot of people that kind of, again, seem and have a lot of housing instability, if they're in a treatment center, if they're in a hospital, and they will be homeless when they leave- those folks are not generally eligible to be counted. Same with people in jail. So there's a lot of that type of undercount. And also, just the point-in-time nature of the count really does limit it. So, homelessness, like many other social issues, are very cyclical. Someone gets a place and is able to pay their way in a weekly motel for a while with a job, is not technically homeless for a day, a week, a month, and then something happens: lose the job, car breaks down, can’t go to work, and returns to homelessness. So you know, those, those numbers are always higher than they seem. But nonetheless, we're, we're seeing clear evidence that it's increasing here in Northwest Arkansas.

We also look at characteristics of people. And you know, not surprisingly, and again, pretty similar with national trends, we see, we see some very stark and unfortunate racial and ethnic disparities, larger rates of homelessness, generally speaking, among non-white communities, African American, Marshallese, to, to a lesser but real extent Hispanic individuals. We see very elevated rates of people with disabling conditions, mental health conditions, substance use disorders, and physical health conditions as well. And again, that's very consistent with national data.

Last year, I added a few items just to look at other characteristics. We have very high rates of people that when they were children were in the child welfare system. So very, very often, it's important to remember, you know, you see an adult's on a corner flying assign or something- none of us started as adults. And so when you look back at the life trajectories of people, you see very high rates of early childhood adversity, those types of factors. And so, not surprisingly, we saw that as well.

JT: So why is it important to gather these statistics? How are they used? What can the powers that be do with these numbers- with these stories of people? Because that's what these numbers are, right? These are people's stories.

JG: Beneath every number is a human, right? So yes, absolutely. You know, the, the numbers get used in a couple of ways, and can probably be used in a few more they, you know, the most straightforward and concrete one is HUD requires, we could certainly benefit from a larger amount of HUD funds in our community, but hundreds of thousands of dollars come in. And this is one of the requirements. So, obviously, we need to stay on the right side of a funder. And then locally there started to be not that there's there hasn't been attention to it. But you know, Fayetteville, as one of our communities, has been having a lot of a lot of dialogue around issues of homelessness and housing. So the city council was certainly looking at numbers this past year and looking at the increases. So I think, while it's unfortunate that we have this many people living without housing in our community, the better of a job that we can do getting close to a truer picture of them, people can start to see the size and the scope of it. And when we can bring in some of those characteristics that can help to push back against some of the stigmas, again, the rates of early childhood adversity, the rates of disability, you know, it's not just some stereotypical person who's just looking for someone to take care of them. Generally speaking, it’s people that have had way more than their fair share of life challenges and are trying to navigate a social system- even before homelessness- that doesn't always do a really good job of addressing disabling conditions. So it's, you know, folks with a serious mental illness that, with good treatment and support, could live quite successfully in the community. When those supports aren't available, they become at greater risk when you think about how expensive it is to live here, right? A housing market is a competitive environment. If you have untreated under treated mental health conditions and substance use conditions that, while treatable, there aren't enough rehab beds, we end up with people out there. And again, I like your point that these numbers are boring and wonky. Each one is, you know, someone's child, often someone's parent, those types of things.

JT: Is there anything I forgot to ask or anything else that you feel is necessary to mention?

JG: I would just, you know, I always I would feel remiss without just saying we as a community can and should, and really, frankly, need to do better. You know, I, I interviewed a 70-year-old woman sleeping in a tent, you know, that's just crappy, you know, we can do better.

JT: Absolutely. Thank you, John.

JG: Thank you.

John Gallagher is an associate professor at the University of Arkansas School of Social Work. He recently spoke with Ozarks at Large’s Jack Travis in the Bruce and Anne Applegate News Studio One. You can visit our website to learn more about the NWA Continuum of Care and review Point In Time counts from 2018 through 2023.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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