Weather brings full shelters as Durham takes homeless headcount

Jan. 31, 2014 @ 10:34 AM

As homeless shelters felt the strain Wednesday night with temperatures dropping into the low teens, Durham’s Department of Community Development began collecting data for its annual headcount of the homeless.

The city will begin calculating overall numbers starting early next week, said Lloyd Schmeidler, a project manager in the community development department, but this is the first year, due to hazardous road and weather conditions, that volunteers were unable to conduct an outdoors headcount.

Durham is only collecting homeless numbers from shelters this year – The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development only requires unsheltered counts on odd-number years, so 2013 was the last time Durham calculated that number, which found 53 people were living on the streets. 

Last year’s January data pinpointed 759 people without homes in Durham. Out of that number, 706 were staying in temporary shelter.

The Durham Rescue Mission, a nonprofit organization that provides emergency, transitional and long-term shelter for the homeless, announced the results of its “Point in Time Count” Thursday.

The mission revealed that it was housing 463 men, women and children, a 24-percent increase from last year, or 91 more people.

Mission co-founder Ernie Mills said the bad news is that even though the mission added 128 new beds last year, the space is already maxed out. Wednesday night, 32 people were sleeping on the floor in the dining room to keep out of the cold.

He said the mission plans to build three new dormitory buildings along East Main Street for transitional housing for the homeless. They are starting to raise money for the project.

“We need it tomorrow,” Mills said of building construction. “But we can’t do it tomorrow.”

Patrice Nelson, executive director of Urban Ministries of Durham, said their “Point in Time Count” showed 156 people in their shelter Wednesday night, even though they technically have 149 beds. Some people slept on mats on the floor.

All nine of their family rooms were full. They also welcomed 13 “white flag” homeless individuals seeking emergency shelter from below-freezing temperatures.

She said last year’s January headcount showed Durham was making progress in helping the chronically homeless, as well as homeless veterans and families, find housing.

“I’m hoping the homeless count will continue to show progress in helping those groups,” Nelson said. “The reality is that there are still a lot of people who need help, and we need more affordable housing.”

The city-county Homeless Services Advisory Committee, a 24-member group that provides strategic direction for Durham’s homeless initiatives, plans to send a resolution to city and county officials next week regarding support for affordable housing around Durham transit stations.

The resolution states the city should preserve and increase affordable housing to 15 percent of housing units within a half-mile radius of transit stations or neighborhood transit centers. The housing should be affordable to families who make less than 60 percent of the area’s median income.

The U.S. Census Bureau lists Durham County’s median household income as $50,997. The affordable housing resolution’s target audience would be those making less than $30,598.

The plan includes the appointment of a joint city-county advisory committee composed of community, business, development and institutional leaders who would provide oversight of affordable housing plans.

Schmeidler with Durham’s community development department said this year, the city’s homeless efforts are focused on connecting disabled, homeless individuals to disability benefits, providing more resources for homeless children, and growing Durham’s rapid rehousing programs.

He also added that his department is partnering with the Durham County Department of Social Services to implement a streamlined assessment system, which would provide a fuller picture of a homeless individual’s needs when they seek help.

“My heart is in this kind of work, and it breaks my heart many times when I encounter people who are unsheltered, who have given up hope that their life can be different,” Schmeidler said. “(I work) with wonderful community partners to try to make a difference, and we try to create a system that is more responsive to the needs of people in our community.”