News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 30, 2014

Everyone counts: Winter weather complicates yearly tally of homeless in Wabash Valley

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Bitter winds and freezing temperatures made Thursday a particularly unpleasant day to be homeless — and an unlikely day to spend outdoors.

But as the designated day for the Point in Time Count, volunteers for the Wabash Valley Planning Council on Homelessness for Region 7 worked throughout the day to locate people who meet the federal definition of homeless.

Two such volunteers, Jennifer Christian and Raye Rauckman, spent most of the day driving around the city trying to locate people who were staying in parks, abandoned buildings, under bridges and in other out-of-the-way places.

Other volunteers talked to people who showed up to receive services at local soup kitchens and shelters. Supplied with goody bags that included hats, mittens, scarves, blankets, hygiene kits and food, the volunteers looked for homeless people to participate in the survey.

At the city bus station at Cherry and Eighth streets, among the people waiting for buses to arrive were some folks who admitted they were riding the buses to stay warm because they had no place to live.

Both Crystal, who declined to give her last name, and her friend Bobby Seeley, said they are looking for work, and they consider themselves homeless. They have a place to stay, but no heat for their home.

“We were doing really good,” Seeley said of their circumstance. “We have a wood burner, but it’s really hard without money to get wood for it.”

Seeley said he has been in and out of jail, and he is fighting addiction and alcoholism, which makes it hard to find and keep a job.

“It’s a lot harder in the winter time because there’s less work I can do,” he said.

If Seeley and Crystal are able to find a place to stay at night, such as a friend’s couch, they are not considered homeless according to the Point in Time Count rules.

That fact is frustrating to many of the people who advocate for the homeless in the Wabash Valley.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Danielle Elkins, case manager at Bethany House, a homeless shelter for women. “I get calls all the time for people who are living in their cars. Not so much in the winter. But I know there are homeless people here.”

Four of the many people who went to Bethany House for a free midday lunch on Thursday would have qualified as homeless, Elkins said, but two people admitted that they found a place to stay overnight so they no longer qualified as homeless, according to the count’s definition.

Dottye Crippen of Bethany House said it is frustrating that people who are “precariously housed” are not counted for the purpose of the official count by the Housing and Urban Development program.

“I feel like they don’t want very many people to be counted because then they would have to grant us more money to assist them,” Crippen said of the Point in Time figures, which in part are used to determine funding for homelessness programs.

Christian and Rauckman, who are first-time organizers for the count, agreed it was frustrating that so few people met the official definition.

“We found several people who say they are sleeping in their sister’s garage and are homeless, but they don’t qualify for the count,” Christian said.

For the count, a person must be staying either outdoors, in a vehicle, in a shelter or a location not fit for human habitation — such as an abandoned building.

All of the people already housed in local shelters were included in the Point in Time Count, but members of the local homeless coalition are certain there are many more people who aren’t being counted who qualify as homeless.

Many individuals, businesses and organizations in the area have supported the homeless count, which includes several counties in Region 7. Christian said the planning council has had cooperation from Bethany House, Mental Health America, Center for Community Engagement at ISU, United Cerebral Palsy, Chick-fil-A, Java Haute, all three Kroger locations in Terre Haute, Ballyhoo Tavern, Goodwill and Roly Poly.

Among the volunteers were brothers Derrick and Jonathon Gossar, who met with people at the city bus terminal.

“It’s a good thing to do,” Derrick said of his motivation for helping with the count. “I’ve been at the point where I’ve been almost homeless, and I hate to see someone who is. I wish there was more we could do at this point rather than just gather information.”

“There’s a lot of pride in Hoosiers,” Jonathan agreed, speaking of people who don’t want to admit their situation. “There’s been some people we’ve tried to approach who just turn and scurry away. There’s not much tolerance for homelessness.”

The volunteers said they were thankful for those who assisted with the count by hosting volunteers throughout the day. Those sites included Bethany House, the Terre Haute bus terminal at Eighth and Cherry streets, Lighthouse Mission, Booker T. Washington Community Center, Kings Harvest Foursquare Church Food Pantry, soup kitchens at St. Patrick’s and St. Benedict’s churches, and Ryves Youth Center at Etling Hall.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.