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Seeking out the homeless: Rowan Helping Ministries leads effort to get a snapshot of homelessness

SALISBURY — Armed with yellow-paper surveys and clipboards, six people braved the cold night air Wednesday to gather a vital snapshot of Rowan County.

The snapshot was of the homeless population: how many people remain unsheltered, and how are local humanitarian organizations meeting their needs?

The annual “Point-In-Time” count was coordinated by Rowan Helping Ministries.

Sherry Smith, director of client services with the agency, was one of six people prowling the city Wednesday night. The group was out from 10:45 p.m. to 1:15 a.m.

Smith says the count is an annual effort of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to calculate the number of unsheltered people across the country.

“The goal is to find no one,” she said.

On Wednesday night, they came close.

The group checked behind local buildings, under bridges, in cemeteries and at 24-hour businesses like McDonald’s and Waffle House — anywhere someone might go to find refuge from the cold.

In total, they identified six people who were unsheltered Wednesday night. Last year, they found 15.

But Smith said the temperature can affect the count. Last year, the low was about 40 degrees.

“At temperatures around freezing, most people will take someone in,” she said. “… Typically people will find somewhere warm on nights like these.”

This can include bedding down with family members or former shelter guests with whom they’ve formed bonds, Smith said.

Where people slept on Wednesday was one question on the anonymous Point-In-Time survey. Other questions included veteran status, job status, reason for homelessness, and services used or needed within the last 18 months.

Erica Taylor, communications manager with Rowan Helping Ministries, said information from the count affects funding decisions by state and federal agencies.

“Information gathered from this count will be reported to the U.S. Congress in order to inform policy-making and funding allocation,” she said. “… (This) has the potential to greatly impact our organization and Rowan County as a whole. It will help us understand trends and better understand the scope of the problem so that we may research ways to progress and continually evolve.”

Smith said her focus Wednesday night was to help educate the people the surveyors encountered about local services available to them. She let the rest of her team — two former shelter guests and three volunteers from Shady Grove Baptist Church in Mount Ulla — handle the surveys.

“Homelessness is just a small part of their crisis. There are several issues as to why people are homeless,” she said. “I let people know, we’re there to lend a helping hand. If you’re ready for change, we’re ready to help you through the process.”

Point-In-Time surveying was to continue throughout the day Thursday and Friday, with stations for surveying at places like Jeannie’s Kitchen, the Department of Social Services and Rowan Public Library.

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