Ever heard of the “coastline paradox”? It’s the idea that explains why a coastline is considered so difficult to accurately measure: Smaller units of measurement allow more precise measurements of the coastline’s nooks and crannies, but these more precise measurements increase the resulting total length.
This parallels the Point-in-Time Count (PIT) – an unduplicated count of people experiencing homelessness that occurs in a single night – that a group of volunteers in the Kansas City area did in January. The more people who were out counting at a given time, the more accurate the resulting count was.
The PIT count includes both sheltered and unsheltered populations, and the results are used by agencies as a gauge to identify the needs in the community. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires communities to conduct PIT counts every other year, but Kansas City does one every year. The Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness is the local agency that organized the 2020 PIT count.
Kansas City’s count this year began at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 22, and ended at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 23. Staff from local organizations, case workers, professionals, and volunteers all participated in this important event.
A hidden issue
Two years ago, a friend of a friend reached out to me. He said there was a young person in the Kansas City area who needed some help. The youth was 18 and identified as gender-fluid. I met this youth at a local coffee shop. During our conversation, it became clear the youth’s living situation was untenable. They were homeless. The individual they were staying with was abusing them – physically, emotionally, and sexually. They did not know of any other options.
An estimated 700,000 youth in the United States are experiencing homelessness at any given time, Gerald T. Montano reported in a 2019 article in Pediatric News. Nearly one-third of those youth identify as part of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) community, and about 4% identify as transgender. That is about 260,000 homeless youth in the United States who are part of the LGBT+ community.
In Kansas City, the number of homeless LGBT+ youth ranges from 100 to 500. These are not all individuals who are living on a street corner, under a bridge, or in a shelter. These could be individuals who “couch-surf” from friend’s house to friend’s house. They may meet up online with someone for money or just to get a place to stay for the night.
Several places can help, such as reStart, a local center that provides housing and supportive services for youth, families, women, and men. SAVE Inc., one of Kansas City’s AIDS Service Organizations, just opened PRIDE Haven, an inclusive drop-in center in Midtown Kansas City for LGBTQIA+ adults ages 18-24. Although several other organizations in Kansas City work with individuals experiencing homelessness, reStart and SAVE Inc. are two of only a handful that are considered inclusive. At other organizations, individuals are typically required to sleep with others of their sex assigned at birth.
Preparing for the PIT count
On a cold Tuesday night in January, a group of about 35 people gathered in a community room at reStart’s main location for training. The group is mostly case workers or professionals, mixed in with a handful of volunteers. For most in the room, this will be their first PIT count.
Jonathan Peter, reStart’s relatively new director of adult and clinical services, facilitated this last training before the PIT count. Peter’s career involved years in Oklahoma City working with individuals experiencing homelessness. This was the 16th PIT he had participated in.
In a change from last year, this year’s PIT involved the use of a smartphone application that allowed PIT volunteers to temporarily save surveys if they did not have internet access in their location. This removed a barrier for many volunteers whose cellular internet coverage was not optimal.
The PIT is a survey designed to identify needs. It asks for demographic information such as age or age range, name or “street name,” race, ethnicity, gender, etc. It was built to be inclusive – if a person doesn’t know or doesn’t want to say, they are not required to provide the information. The PIT starts with a short informed-consent statement that the volunteers read aloud to the participant. They can choose to take the survey if they want or they can stop at any time.
The survey asks about how many times a person has been homeless and how long they have been homeless this time. It then asks more sensitive questions about a person’s physical, mental, and emotional health. It asks whether the participant has been the victim of abuse and whether they are experiencing homelessness because of these factors. For individuals who identify themselves as survivors of domestic violence, a local organization can provide immediate help.
A cold day to count
I had signed up for a PIT shift on Wednesday between 6 and 9 p.m., so I met my group at Hope Faith Ministries, near Independence Avenue and The Paseo. Hope Faith is a drop-in center open during the day. It was one of several locations where PIT volunteers were assigned to stage before they headed out.
I was paired with a social worker from a local community organization. She had just returned from a previous three-hour shift during which they only interacted with three individuals. There were supposed to be eight people doing the count for that shift, but only four showed. That first day was cold, rainy, and snowy. I think everyone meeting at Hope Faith was quietly disappointed in the weather, turnout, and progress.
Given the slow start, my colleague and I decided to focus on a different area. We opted to head down east on Independence Avenue, with a plan to circle back to downtown. Along with the survey, we had bags of supplies provided by reStart, the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection Downtown, and other local organizations. The bags had water, granola bars, hand warmers, bus passes, beanies, and gloves, among other items. Regardless of whether an individual completed the survey, we would give out the bags.
We never made it downtown. During our three (cold) hours out, we interacted with about two dozen individuals.
One of the first people we interacted with was a young LGBTQ+ individual. They had just left a store, but hung out for a few minutes to take the survey. It was heartbreaking to hear the story of what was going on and why they were currently homeless. We gave them a bag and wished them well. It was hard not to be able to offer anything more to them at the time.
As we made our way down Independence Avenue, we would stop and chat up any individual standing around or walking on that cold night. Our pitch was simple: “We are talking to people about their housing situation. Would you have a few minutes to answer some questions?” This usually opened the door for more conversation. Sometimes people would say they didn’t have the time or were not interested, but those instances were rare. Most people were willing to talk.
I thought of how the tables had turned – of how I would walk past people when they were asking me for money outside the Prospect Sun Fresh store. Or how I avoided the glances of individuals panhandling at interstate exits. Although I believe that giving money to organizations is a better way to help than just giving it to people who I encounter, it is hard to walk past people.
We had a list of places to stop by on Independence, but most were empty. Instead, we used the intelligence-gathering technique of just asking people for other places to go. We stopped at a CVS drugstore and got directions to a homeless camp. We chatted up a police officer, and he recommended an underpass.
When we returned to Hope Faith at 9, we were greeted by a team of about 15 people, including Star Palmer, executive director of Our Spot KC. She and the others were about to head out to give away homemade burritos to individuals they encountered. It would be a long, four-hour shift for them, but they were all in good spirits and focused on the task at hand.
The results of the PIT count have not yet been released.
Blaine Proctor, CEO of SAVE Inc., offered more information about PRIDE Haven: “It is a drop-in center for transition-aged youth [18-24 years old] who identify as LGBTQIA+. It is the original SAVE Home building, which is where SAVE Inc. started back in 1986. Currently we are open 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., offering drop-in services such as connection to community resources, laundry, meals, showers, a place to rest, computer lab and other amenities.” Two case managers and a life-skills associate work with youth, Proctor said. SAVE Inc.’s vision is to gain more funding and then offer overnight sheltering as well as the drop-in services. For more information on PRIDE Haven, contact SAVE Inc. at 816-531-8340.
Offering a full range of services for Kansas City’s homeless men, women, youth, and families, reStart is equipped to provide emergency overnight shelter and can handle all persons, including those with special needs. ReStart’s youth hotline is 816-309-9048.
Synergy offers a continuum of care, including crisis hotlines, emergency shelter, transitional housing, therapeutic services, advocacy, mentoring and violence prevention programs throughout the Kansas City area. Synergy’s youth crisis hotline number is: 816-741-8700 or 888-233-1639.