Volunteers tackle cold to count, help the homeless

New London — A team, bundled in winter jackets and hats as temperatures dipped into the low 20s, canvassed a wooded area in the city on Tuesday night in search of anyone they could help.

Looking around with flashlights, they found a young couple living there and asked them questions from a survey for the annual Point-in-Time Count to get a better understanding of homelessness in the region. 

"Is anybody else out here?" asked Andy Nobles, shelter supervisor at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, who was participating in the count.

Nearby, he found Kyle Prentice, 29, who had insulated a tent and was using a small propane heater to keep warm in the cold weather.  

Prentice said he's homeless due to a cascade of events. He said he faced unemployment, back problems and addiction, which he said, like many people, is where his issue with homelessness started. The motor in his car died, and since he had been living in his car, he started living outdoors.

"Once it starts, it's hard to catch it," he said about homelessness. He added that people from the Homeless Hospitality Center do come by to check on him and others.

After the questionnaires were done, the team handed out gift cards for food, or items to keep them warm, and offered assistance.

About 40 volunteers had gathered at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Bank in New London and Southeastern Mental Health Authority in Norwich on Tuesday and then headed out in teams to look in places across the region to offer help to people and ask them questions through a mobile app to provide data on homelessness. The survey asks people for demographic and health information, how long they have been homeless, if they are veterans, and if they are fleeing domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

The count of people who are experiencing homelessness, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, takes place across the country within the last 10 days of January, said Annie Stockton, community impact director for the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, which organized the count in the region. In Connecticut, the count is held across the state on Jan. 22, and the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness then prepares a report with the data.

Stockton said it's important to canvass the community to determine who is outside and who may need outreach or help figuring out where to go. The volunteers not only count people, but they also offer them shelter and give them warm items, such as hats, gloves, socks, blankets and hand warmers.

For Tammy Alger, rapid rehousing case manager at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, the annual Point-in-Time Count is all about trying to find anyone the outreach organizations may have missed in their daily work.

Melissa Lopez, bilingual case manager at the Homeless Hospitality Center in New London, said she helps out during the count, because she has been homeless and wants to give back. She said homelessness can affect anybody in any class of any race, and one doesn't have to suffer from a mental health issue or drug addiction to experience it.

Her own personal experience with homelessness in the past drives her to help those facing homelessness.

"It makes me not want to give up, because you could be at the bottom where you feel like you have no hope, but there is a light and there is help out there," she said.

In addition to the count of people outdoors, Thames River Community Service Inc. organized a count of people "staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing," according to a news release from the United Way.

From 2007 to 2018, Connecticut experienced a 25 percent decrease in homelessness, according to Stockton.

In southeastern Connecticut, there was a 19 percent uptick in homelessness between 2017 and 2018, when 271 people were counted as homeless in the region. Stockton said the Point-in-Time Count provides a very valuable data point but can fluctuate from year to year for various reasons, including a difference in weather or the places volunteers look.

The United Way of Southeastern Connecticut, St. Vincent de Paul Place, Axelrod Tire and Service Center, Trueflow Testing & Balancing LLC, The Bulletin, and individuals donated the items that were given out, according to a news release.

Stockton said she's amazed by the number of people who volunteer each year to do the difficult but important work.

She added that a network of providers in the region work collaboratively to solve issues like homelessness and finding housing.

"Every year we go out, our system has made it much easier to find people because we work so well together and we’re very collaborative, so I think that’s something very strong within the southeastern Connecticut community: we’ve figured how to find people and keep them safe and get them housing," she said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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