Telling an honest story: Montco will count the number of people experiencing homelessness

File photo: People inspect damage in Fort Washington, Pa. Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area.

File photo: People inspect damage in Fort Washington, Pa. Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In Montgomery and Delaware counties, what do you wonder about the places, the people, and the culture that you want WHYY to explore?

Montgomery County will conduct its annual Point-in-Time Count of the number of people experiencing homelessness on Jan. 25. On that day, in collaboration with Your Way Home, Montco’s crisis housing response agency, the county Office of Housing and Community Development will work with community volunteers to connect with individuals.

The count is meant to “inform policymakers, funders, and local communities so [they] can track progress toward the goal of ending homelessness,” Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence said during the final Board of Commissioners meeting of 2021.

So far, officials say, the county has more volunteers than ever before, over 100 people. But it’s still asking for additional help from community members.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Stable, secure housing is critical to combating negative social determinants of health, while also supporting households across the income spectrum in achieving greater economic mobility. And everyone plays a role in helping make this happen,” said Lawrence.

Canvassers will be counting people who are “unsheltered,” said Kayleigh Silver, administrator for the Office of Housing and Community Development.

As volunteers walk through designated areas of the county, equipped with socks and blankets, they’ll be handing out a survey asking houseless community members about their needs. A medical professional will also be offering free COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots, and a representative from Legal Aid will be discussing the organization’s services.

No matter the temperature, a “Code Blue” night will be declared for Jan. 25. Shelters will hold extra emergency beds for those in need. The county is offering emergency hotel vouchers for those who are pregnant, children, and anyone with a severe medical condition.

Montco also will be counting all individuals who are in emergency shelters or transitional housing, including those staying in hotel rooms paid for by the county since the remnants of Hurricane Ida struck in early September.

That’s part of the reason Silver is expecting higher numbers this year — the aftereffects of Ida remain. The hurricane left 142 households, 316 people, in 157 of those hotel rooms.

Local community service organization ACLAMO is working with 52 families in hotels, according to executive director Nelly Jimenez. Ninety other displaced families are living with relatives or friends.

The hurricane also wiped out 124 affordable housing units in Norristown, a gut punch to a county already lacking in them.

According to Silver, the call volume for housing and homeless help increased over the last year, as did caseloads for street outreach teams.

“We attribute that to drivers of homelessness around lack of affordable housing, COVID-19 economic impacts, rising rent, and real estate prices throughout Montgomery County,” Silver said.

The county’s March 2021 Homes for All report found that in some areas rental costs are increasing 12% to 17% year over year.

“We’re seeing the lowest vacancy rates, particularly for affordable housing units, in the past 20 years,” said Silver. “More than half of renters in Montgomery County are paying more than 30% of their monthly income towards rent.”

Just a snapshot

The federal definition of homelessness does not include families that are displaced and living in others’ homes. The county will be abiding by that definition for this count, and excluding those families from this total.

“No one is ever arguing or stating that this gives a full, accurate picture,” said Silver, “It is a snapshot, a small, limited snapshot, that helps us guide one piece of a very large and complex puzzle of where we are.”

That’s concerning for Jimenez, who said Latino community members often do not end up in shelters, but turn to loved ones instead.

Living in other people’s homes, which Jimenez understands as being homeless, comes with its own difficulties.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“They are still at risk,” said Jimenez, “If their family member is renting, what is going to happen? The landlord is going to say, ‘Why are now ten people living in the house when your contract said five?’”

Jimenez said some families are living in fear of being evicted, or “some landlords are going to start increasing the rent.”

When asked about those kinds of difficulties, Silver said the county is trying to support families in a range of living situations.

“It is very important to us to understand that homelessness is complex, multifaceted, looks different for many people, and affects many, many households in Montgomery County, and that we need to broaden support and services for them. “

Community members living in hotels, some for three months now, are desperate to find homes, said Jimenez.

“They don’t have a place to call home,” she said. “They don’t want to live in their hotels. They want to go home.” But trying to find a house, an affordable one, while also working full-time jobs and raising their kids and sending them to school, is challenging.

Jimenez said they also miss the freedoms of living in their own space, like cooking their own meals. Currently, the county is paying organizations to cook meals.

“It’s not your own food. Come on,” said Jimenez. “If I was in that situation, I would be crazy too.”

Telling the story

Silver said the count will tell an honest story about Montgomery County.

She said it’s also key to understand the history of structural racism and racist housing practices that led to people of color being disproportionately affected by homelessness.

“Reparations need to be made in order to undo years of federal and local policy that has driven that,” Silver added. “We need the people who have experienced homelessness to guide this work, to inform us on what is needed.”

At the end of the day, Silver said, Your Way Home’s mission is to ensure that everyone in Montgomery County has housing, which she believes is a human right.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal