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Thu, April 25

Hope & Honor: Point-In-Time Count a means to get resources to curb homelessness

Nanci Hutson/The Daily Courier<br>
VA Homeless Outreach Team Point-In-Time members Markham Breen, a social worker and the VA liaison with U.S. Vets Initiative, and Frazier Mayer, a medical support assistant, load up a van with blankets, sleeping bags and water to distribute to homeless they encounter during the Point-In-Time Count on Jan. 27.

Nanci Hutson/The Daily Courier<br> VA Homeless Outreach Team Point-In-Time members Markham Breen, a social worker and the VA liaison with U.S. Vets Initiative, and Frazier Mayer, a medical support assistant, load up a van with blankets, sleeping bags and water to distribute to homeless they encounter during the Point-In-Time Count on Jan. 27.

PRESCOTT - A 40-year-old homeless man is hidden so deep inside a bridge abutment he is nearly invisible, his body wrapped inside a sleeping bag on the concrete just beyond a path littered with empty soup cans, liquor bottles, paper goods and a potpourri of used hygiene products.

One of the volunteers with the Northern Arizona Veterans Administration Health Care System Point-In-Time count team, Scott Mayer, identifies the man's location. Team captain Markham Breen, a VA outreach counselor, steps up to the entrance of the cave-like area and calls out to the man.

A reedy voice answers back, at first defensive as he fears Breen has come to roust him from his space.

Quickly, Breen assures the man he means no harm. He explains he is with a VA team attempting to count and survey the local homeless so as to get the federal money needed to help them with housing and essential services.

With respect for his privacy, Breen asks the man to answer a few questions. Breen doesn't attempt to enter the make-shift camp site, but rather sits on a rock nearby.

Barely audible, the man answers a basic list of questions, including information related to substance abuse and mental illness. As it turns out, the man, not a veteran, was working in a local restaurant, but a month after he became homeless he was no longer employable.

Not uncommonly, the man is suspicious of outsiders, rejecting Breen's offer of water. Breen leaves two bottles behind anyway.

Between Jan. 27 and 29, this community's veteran services and other government-funded, non-profit agencies are conducting a required annual federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Point-In-Time count of both unsheltered and sheltered homeless men and women and families.

The count a year ago showed that there were some 141 unsheltered homeless individuals in Yavapai County, representing 103 households. Sheltered homeless, including those living in emergency shelters, transitional housing or with permanent supportive housing vouchers, totaled 251. More than 50 percent of those counted were in the Prescott area.

In the 2015 count, some 29.13 percent of the Yavapai County individuals stated they were veterans, about 30 individuals; and the largest number who did not have shelter were living in vehicles, 36.89 percent. The next largest group said they were living in a camp site, 26.21 percent.

As for length of homelessness, almost 39 percent said they were homeless for more than 24 months. About 17.5 percent said they were homeless for only one to six months.

U.S. VETS Initiative Operations Manager Skye Biasetti, the Point-In-Time coordinator for Yavapai County, said this is a tool to show the powers that be the extent of need here. In addition, the count includes a more detailed survey from veterans to identify those most in need of immediate assistance.

The statistics collected through the count will be used to provide the grant funding required by local agencies who want to end homelessness for veterans and non-veterans alike, whether their bout of homelessness has lasted a few weeks or decades, Biasetti said.

The downside of the count is that it occurs in the winter and is not reflective of the rise in homeless this area sees come summer when people flee the Valley for a more hospitable climate, she and other officials noted.

The Coalition of Compassion and Justice, a leading non-profit organization that relies strictly on private donations and fundraising rather than government funds, recorded in 2014 that it served some 587 individuals.

As a social worker for more than two decades, Breen said he is familiar with the many challenges that come with serving the homeless, particularly veterans. A key to ending their homelessness is building trust so they seek help. Once they do, Breen said the next step is to find suitable housing and support services so they then stay housed.

Breen and fellow non-profit leaders say the biggest obstacle to that goal is this area's limited housing stock, particularly housing that is affordable and available to the homeless, some of whom have suffered serious setbacks, be it with addiction, mental or physical health, or lack of needed employment skills. Some may have a criminal record.

The transitional and subsidized housing now available is snatched up quickly, and the numbers of homeless here have not risen such that the VA and other agencies have been able to expand upon what they have to offer.

The HUD supportive housing movement is a proven success, but there are still not enough vouchers to meet the needs, Breen said.

The VA was given 70 vouchers for Yavapai County last year, and all have been distributed. VA officials said they could easily use another 50 such vouchers just for this region.

A couple of hours into the hunt for the homeless, in places remarkably remote despite how near they are to a bustling downtown, Breen's team finds only empty campsites. One appeared to have been used fairly recently, with sleeping bags tucked into one corner next to some clothes, a few stray socks, and the torn pages from what was a Bible.

They, though, were not about to give up.

The final count numbers will be compiled over the next few weeks.

Biasetti said she and her fellow agency leaders are willing to do this tedious work because they don't want anyone to be forgotten; in this land of plenty no one should be without a place to sleep at night.

"We just need to help them get to where they need to be," Biasetti said.

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