God’s Love was packed. The smell of turkey and cream gravy wafted from the kitchen of the homeless shelter in Helena. The line snaked through the small, warm room, doubling back on itself at the end. Soon everyone was sitting down, and the conversation quieted momentarily before roaring up again.
A few people moved around the room, stopping for a few moments to help people fill in the bubbles on a large, folded sheet of paper. The 16-plus questions on the survey asked homeless individuals to provide information such as their age and gender, as well as the number of times they have visited an emergency room over the past year.
Jan Wenderoth was one of the people making her way around the room. A pile of papers in her hand included copies of the annual Point in Time Survey, a nationwide counting of the homeless population completed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose results are used to determine funding for cities.
Wenderoth has been a case manager at God’s Love for 10 years -- “a retirement job” she calls it with a laugh. She’s been administering the survey that entire time, so she knows the drill.
“Number four is the critical question,” Wenderoth said as she opened the survey. It asks where the surveyed person was sleeping on the night of Thursday, Jan. 25, the point in time that gives the survey its name.
The survey goes through a litany of possible places for a person to sleep: outside, an emergency shelter, a domestic violence shelter, a motel or hotel paid by voucher, a transitional housing program, with friends or family for a short or long duration, a motel or hotel paid by self, a rented apartment or house paid by subsidy or self or owned, a hospital or treatment program, or a jail or pre-release facility.
At the end, respondents are asked to provide their first name and last initial so the surveyors know they aren’t double counting anyone, as the transient population can bounce from Billings to Great Falls to Missoula to Helena depending on the time of year.
“Everybody here is homeless,” Wenderoth said of the people gathered in God’s Love. But to what extent is the important question, because HUD doesn’t consider something like couch surfing to be homeless.
Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins was at God’s Love helping with the count.
“This is part of what I ran on,” Collins said. “Bringing public awareness to the problem of homelessness.”
There were 240 people considered homeless in the Helena area last year, with 99 of those under the age of 18. The cold is one factor that can seriously skew the numbers.
“Last year was warmer,” Munson said, so more people were camping, which makes them harder to count.
Alison Munson, CEO of United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area, said that while the survey was supposed to conclude on a single day, it will continue through this weekend.
Munson said the big count would happen on Sunday. Volunteers will go out to areas with known homeless populations to administer the survey.
“The Helena Police Department gives a list of locations for volunteers to go to,” Munson said.
Montana had 1,500 people considered homeless by HUD after last year’s count, but Munson said those numbers aren’t exactly right.
“Transient populations are here in the summertime,” Munson said. “It’s not New York City.”
“1,500 is just the tip of the iceberg,” Munson said.