The Hidden Homeless: Completing the Count Doesn’t Complete the Picture

On a recent cold, Wednesday night in January, members of the Loudoun County Continuum in Care team bundled up for the annual Point in Time count. They scoured the county to search for those experiencing homelessness on the coldest of nights. They looked for pitched tents, counted the numbers of individuals living in county government-run or nonprofit shelters, looked for people sleeping in cars, or camped out behind stores.

The national endeavor is intended to provide a single-day count of those within a county’s borders who are homeless. The CoC team includes members of the county government staff, nonprofit organizations, schools, mental health services, faith-based communities, and law enforcement, who work in coordination with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. 

Last year’s CoC count found that 179 people out of the county’s 400,000-person-plus population were experiencing homelessness. Many predict this year’s count, with data expected to be released in the spring, will be higher, given lingering economic challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Donna Fortier, CEO of Mobile Hope, a nonprofit organization providing services for homeless and precariously housed youth up to age 24, said the Point in Time count often does not paint the most accurate picture of the on-the-ground situation of homelessness in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties.

“The problem is a lot of the funding that comes to counties based on homeless numbers is based on Point in Time numbers. It never has been and never will be an accurate way to count the homeless population in Loudoun County or any county. [There’s] 524 square miles of land and a small group is supposed to be able to count all of them? It doesn’t happen,” she said.

Many of the homeless youth that Mobile Hope serves are also keen at hiding because of embarrassment, she pointed out. Fortier recalled a recent instance where one of Mobile Hope’s clients said they sleep on the rooftops of downtown Leesburg businesses to avoid detection. 

“They don’t want to be found,” she said. “Trying to raise awareness and include the homeless youth numbers in the Point in Time count is a challenge. I think every year we raise awareness just a little bit more but not enough that gets significant funding or significant housing options.”

The Point in Time count also does not always pick up on the number of homeless individuals who are living in hotels, sometimes paid for by nonprofit groups, churches, or even parole and probation services, Fortier said.

Providing an adequate supply of housing, with pre-workforce housing a particular need, Fortier said, continues to evade many localities. While workforce housing often finds vocal support among the community, the need for pre-workforce housing is perhaps just as great. Pre-workforce housing would cater to young adults who don’t have references, or a savings account, and may have a criminal record. 

“To remove those barriers if we don’t have a stable place for them to start to build their future, the cycle is going to continue and continue and continue,” Fortier said. “Kids who come to us are often trying to escape gangs or drugs or whatever. The neighborhoods they can afford are neighborhoods they shouldn’t be living in. Some of our kids have to sell themselves to pay rent. Those are barriers that are not the typical barriers seen by struggling adults.”

Another barrier that could go a long way in helping the county’s homeless population comes down to having identification. Many of the clients Mobile Hope serves do not have a photo ID, and it may take months now to get an appointment at the DMV. 

“If they don’t have that they don’t qualify to go to a shelter. Then we’re picking up a significant cost to house them [in a hotel] and take them off the street until we can get them an ID,” she said.

One of Good Shepherd Alliance’s major missions is to provide housing to Loudoun’s vulnerable population. Currently, the nonprofit is housing around 22 individuals, said senior program manager Sandra McLean, from an emergency shelter to transitional housing for men, women and families. In the time of COVID, the nonprofit’s has even devoted one of its shelters as quarantine space for those entering housing. The goal of the more than 30-year-old nonprofit is not limited to housing; however, as its clients are put on a path to self-sufficiency via a six-step plan.

McLean said 2020 saw the nonprofit’s demand for housing spike, with calls from clients seeking everything from emergency shelter to financial assistance for basic necessities. It’s been a unique year to be in the business of providing shelter, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing many shelters to keep residents housed longer than usual. 

“We know there’s a pandemic and we know there’s no place to go,” she said.

Many of Good Shepherd’s calls last year came from individuals experiencing domestic violence, a statistic globally on the rise because of the nature of the pandemic causing people to shelter in place. They sought a plan to help them find safe housing, and quickly. 

The nonprofit community is not alone in endeavoring to find help for the homeless or precariously housed. Yolanda Stevens, assistant director of the county Department of Family Services, said many nonprofits and localities are getting creative in trying to find even temporary housing for individuals in the midst of the pandemic. Rent and mortgage relief programs have also been helpful in keeping people housed, as well as the current federal moratorium on evictions that was recently extended to March 31. 

While Stevens and others believe the Point in Time numbers will show an increase in Loudoun’s homeless population, she and others acknowledge that it is a problem many don’t see. And some of these statistics will not be captured in a Point in Time count.

“What you see around the area is a lack of affordable housing, so sometimes it may be considered the hidden homeless,” Stevens said. “We know that there are families and individuals who are renting out basements. We know that there are people who are renting rooms, and we know that there are folks with more than one family living in a residence. People are just involved in unofficial lease situations.”

In terms of numbers, Fortier said Mobile Hope served more than 350 kids in 2020. But that also is not the whole picture.“The problem is with this population we’ve received hundreds of calls, but they don’t take that next step. They’re ashamed or they feel like they’re going to be judged,” she said. “Being labeled as one of the wealthiest counties in the country, if people don’t live in this environment, if they don’t do this every day then they don’t see it. They don’t recognize the teen walking down the street with a backpack and a blanket is homeless. They think they’re coming back from a slumber par

2 thoughts on “The Hidden Homeless: Completing the Count Doesn’t Complete the Picture

  • 2021-02-05 at 7:43 am

    1. The BOS provides proportionately LESS support for the local non-profit “CHARITIES” than ever before
    2. The word non-profit creates a false sense of legitimacy. A non-profit CHARITY such as the Good Shepherd Alliance where I was a volunteer on the board for a decade provides services to support the most needy in the county with a great many volunteers.
    3 There are lots of “non-profits” that are merely tax shields with very high paid employees inside.

    We should definitely support non-profit charities but just because an entity is registered as a non-profit does not make them anything more than a tax avoidance scheme until they demonstrate good community citizenship in my opinion. 🙂 Mobile Hope and Good Shepherd Alliance deserve much more county support than they receive today!

  • 2021-02-05 at 6:35 pm

    There are extreme financial divisions between the people who live in the “richest county.” Knowing that the count will never be complete and has been worsened with this pandemic, what additional programs are available for people enduring homelessness? Some people are now being homeless for the first time in their lives. What resources are out there during COVID?

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