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Muddy shoes and difficult questions: How volunteers are counting the number of homeless Texans

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Daneille Tooker canvassed encampments in Dallas near Malcom X Boulevard and Interstate 30 on Thursday. The Point in Time Count attempts to capture data about homelessness through an interview with and observation of each individual. Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Just after 9 p.m. Thursday night in a muddy, undeveloped lot blocks from downtown Dallas’ interchange of Interstates 30 and 45, Kris Oliver kneeled in front of a half-opened tent.

He could barely see the faces of two people inside. With a calm and cautious voice, he started asking a long list of questions that he read from his cellphone.

“How many of you are there? … Have you been interviewed already? … Are you a female? … Tell me your birthday. … Are you a veteran? … What’s your race? … Have you ever been in foster care?” he said, getting mostly mumbled and monosyllabic answers.

As one of the hundreds of volunteers carrying out the area’s annual homeless census Thursday night, Oliver asked strangers sleeping outside several questions that touched on intimate topics like mental health, consumption of alcohol or drugs, domestic violence and HIV status.

“It feels a little awkward to get through the questions. Some are really personal,” said Oliver, the chief financial officer of the social service organization CitySquare. “They are important to understand their situation, but at the same time, we want to respect their privacy.”

It was one of many challenges he and other volunteers experienced Thursday. But the answers they got are key to understanding the impact — and causes — of homelessness in Dallas. The Point In Time Count, as it is called, is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is conducted across the country each January. Volunteers in Fort Worth and San Antonio also fanned out across those regions to conduct similar counts Thursday. Austin volunteers will do the same Saturday. The Houston area’s count will be next week.

Similar censuses will also be conducted in some of the state’s smaller cities, where tallying and helping homeless Texans can be much more difficult. This year’s counts come as Gov. Greg Abbott continues his criticisms of how Austin officials manage homelessness in the state’s capital.

Although it’s hardly a perfect census, the count is considered a good snapshot that identifies trends and where to focus services for people experiencing homelessness. Past counts show that in the last five years, homelessness has increased in and around Dallas, which has surpassed the larger Houston area as the Texas region with the largest homeless population.

From 2015 to 2019, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Dallas area grew 44.4%, an increase largely driven by the rise of unsheltered homeless residents. Numbers of people in shelters and temporary housing have remained relatively stable in the same period.

HUD uses these numbers as one of the factors to help determine how to divvy up federal funds for housing and homeless services, census organizers explained in an orientation meeting before volunteers went out Thursday night.

“The role you play is key to giving us an accurate count. Based on these numbers, we hope to see more funds,” said Edd Eason, CitySquare’s assistant vice president of health and housing.

Eason said Dallas receives around $16 million from HUD each year.

“That’s about a fourth of what we need to do our job,” he said.

More than 100 volunteers listened carefully as Eason and other experts gave advice on how to use a geo-referenced app to fill out the survey. Volunteers were given bags to hand out with socks, food, hygiene products and bus passes. And experts gave them tips on how to spot and connect with people.

“Look for things stacked up. Look for stores open 24/7,” said Deanna Adams, CitySquare’s assistant director of housing and homeless services. “If you don’t feel safe, don’t survey. We’ve never had emergencies, but we want you to be safe.”

Volunteers and CitySquare staff prepare for this year's Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness in Dallas Jan. 23, 2020. They use an app called Count Us to interview and count people in their teams area.
Volunteers and CitySquare staff prepare for this year's Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness in Dallas Jan. 23, 2020. They use an app called Count Us to interview and count people in their teams area. Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Volunteers and CitySquare staff canvass encampments in Dallas near Malcom X Blvd. and I-30 to interview and count people that are experiencing homelessness on Jan. 23, 2020.
Volunteers and CitySquare staff canvass encampments in Dallas near Malcom X Blvd. and I-30 to interview and count people that are experiencing homelessness on Jan. 23, 2020. Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

First: Volunteers use an app called Count Us to interview and count people experiencing homelessness. Last: Volunteers and CitySquare staff canvass encampments in Dallas near Malcom X Boulevard and I-30.

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

After these instructions, the teams left for routes based on locations with bigger concentrations of people experiencing homelessness, according to previous counts and the input of outreach workers.

On the streets, volunteers quickly realized how difficult it can be to engage with people — or even to find them. Only a few blocks away from the CitySquare headquarters, Oliver’s team approached five people sleeping on the ground under the infinite noise of the I-30 overpass.

Oliver squatted next to a person covered head to toe with a blue and green blanket. Volunteers are instructed to try to talk to people but not to force the conversation. If there is no response, volunteers can still use the app to count the person but add a note that no questions were answered.

“He didn’t respond, so I just recorded the observation,” Oliver said.

Of the five people who had been sleeping there, only two answered the survey.

After that, volunteers were about to leave. But a block away, in the darkness behind one of the highway’s support pillars, they saw a shopping cart and a person sleeping under a red blanket.

“Good evening. Can I ask you a question?” said Jeffrey Zsohar, one of the volunteers and the medical director at the Community Care Clinics of Baylor Scott & White Health.

He didn’t get a reply.

“Do you want to be left alone? OK, I will leave you alone,” Zsohar said.

Not far away from there, 54-year-old Anthony Taylor had his tent next to one of the expressway’s walls. He talked about a car crash that filled the area around his tent with smoke. But still, he said, he prefers living there rather than in a shelter because of the freedom he has.

He was happy to answer the survey.

“If I don’t like the question, I don’t answer. I don’t play around,” he said with a comfortable smile.

The group kept moving, sometimes jumping in a van and sometimes walking. After being canvassed, one person experiencing homelessness pointed out a hole in a fence that led to a grassy area under a highway overpass.

A set of concrete blocks had some blankets on top and looked like a perfect spot to sleep — but no one was there. The volunteers kept walking and saw another group of tents in the dark. Some of them talked about how, in spite of many attempts to remove encampments, homeless residents are still there.

Later, the group arrived in an industrial area next to some loading docks. As soon as they showed up, three teenagers ran away. That’s another challenge: Some people actively avoid the surveyors.

Next to a puddle in the dark, a volunteer approached young couple hanging out. The volunteer got some words out of them, but they appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The volunteer marked that in the app.

Volunteers and CitySquare staff canvass encampments in Dallas near Malcom X Blvd. and I-30 to interview and count people that are experiencing homelessness on Jan. 23, 2020.
Volunteers and CitySquare staff canvass encampments in Dallas near Malcom X Blvd. and I-30 to interview and count people that are experiencing homelessness on Jan. 23, 2020. Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Volunteers and CitySquare staff canvass encampments in Dallas near Malcom X Blvd. and I-30 to interview and count people that are experiencing homelessness on Jan. 23, 2020.
Volunteers and CitySquare staff canvass encampments in Dallas near Malcom X Blvd. and I-30 to interview and count people that are experiencing homelessness on Jan. 23, 2020. Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Volunteers have to balance getting much-needed answers while respecting people's privacy when approaching tents and people sleeping.

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

Carl Falconer, executive director of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, live-monitored everything being input into the app, including what was going on miles away on the outskirts of Dallas.

While the challenge near downtown is to get people to talk to volunteers, the question in the suburbs is whether volunteers can find homeless residents. In Plano, for example, the Salvation Army tries to get people to come to them. They opened their warming station, which normally operates only when it is 32 degrees or colder. On Thursday night, it was about 52 degrees outside.

“People can come join us and have a warm meal and take the survey,” said Lt. Michael Cain, corps officer of the Salvation Army Plano.

But other groups also hit the streets trying to find people. Blake Fetterman, executive director of the Carr P. Collins Social Service of the Salvation Army, was driving around for three hours in residential areas outside of Dallas’ urban core.

They went to parks, alleys and parking lots but found nothing. In some places, they saw police officers, which can deter people experiencing homelessness.

“It was incredibly quiet. We didn’t find anyone experiencing homelessness,” Fetterman said.

By the end of the night, she hadn’t even opened the app.

“But even by not finding them, this tells us something about where we should or not target our efforts,” she said.

The results of the count on the streets will be added to shelters’ data from that day. The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance expects to release the results March 19.

But Falconer was already happy about the quality of the survey Thursday night.

“The overall numbers are looking very similar from last year, but it does look like we have a lot of volunteers going to very specific areas,” Falconer said.

At 10 p.m., as he walked with the team of volunteers, he could see in the app that the number of people who answered the questionnaire — which provides much more insight into the lives of homeless residents — was 84% of the people counted, including individuals in shelters. Only 16% of the entries were just observational.

Beneath a billboard next to I-30, and with the Dallas skyline behind him, 56-year-old Terrence Johnson was one of many homeless Dallas residents who answered even the most personal inquiries.

“I understand why they are asking these questions. I know that this is to try to help the homeless,” said Johnson, who has been living in a tent for six months. “I never thought I would be homeless, but here I am. It can happen to anyone.”