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The locally generated information from the Point-in-Time survey

The locally generated information from the Point in Time survey is compiled by the Montana Continuum of Care and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to give policymakers a clearer picture of homelessness.

The Helena Point in Time Survey is part of a yearly project designed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to get a nationwide understanding of where the homelessness population spends the hardest part of the year.

The survey is conducted in January, generally the hardest time of the year for people to be outside and the time when many will come in and take advantage of services like emergency shelter and food.

Across the state, more than 2,000 people responded to the survey, with just more than half of those qualifying as HUD homeless. That means that those people either spent the night of Jan. 25 outside, in an emergency shelter, in a domestic violence shelter, at a motel with a voucher or in transitional housing.

This year's Helena Point in Time Survey had 337 respondents, up from the 240 respondents from last year but down from a high point of 423 in 2015.

Of 2018's 337 respondents, fewer than a third were deemed "homeless" according to HUD's definition of homeless. 

The rest of the respondents were in some kind of housing that might not last for a long period of time or could turn over swiftly, including prerelease from the justice system or at the hospital.

Over 60 percent of the respondents identified themselves as male, with 34 percent marking female on their surveys. The average age was 39 years, but men were nearly 10 years older than women on average, with men clocking in at 42 years old on average and women at 33.

The racial breakdown of respondents was 76 percent white, 18 percent Native American, 5 percent Hispanic or Latino, 4 percent black or African-American, 1 percent Asian and 1 percent Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, with the last 4 percent marking "other."

Two-thirds of the survey respondents have been in Helena for more than a year, with nearly a quarter of the entire group having spent more than 10 years in the city. 

Trina Filan, the community impact coordinator for United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area, said that while the Point in Time Survey can provide some interesting data, it is not comprehensive. 

"We're unsure if it's accurate," Filan said. "Lots of people are reluctant to take the survey because they don't trust the government."

Filan said difficulties getting people to respond can cause issues when it comes to long-term understanding of how a homeless population changes.

"Some people can be super into it for a year or two and then just go, 'Eh,'" Filan said. 

In the survey, 165 of the 337 respondents reported that they had some kind of mental health condition. Filan was wary of saying whether or not mental health issues are direct causes of homelessness but did say that a combination of mental health and substance use disorders can create a situation in which chaotic housing is a reality. 

Some of the complications that can arise in Point in Time Surveys show up more clearly in the "Do you have any income?" question HUD posed in the 2018 survey.

A total of 91 people reported they have no income, with more than 100 others claiming government benefits like Social Security or disability. But 59 people responded that they had full-time jobs for income, an unusual response for a survey ostensibly about homelessness. But, Filan said that kind of confusion is usual in a data-gathering operation like this.

Filan said the best data comes through a year-round system. She said United Way has been working to implement a system called coordinated entry, which "connects systems across the state."

"It's more thoughtful, purposeful and collaborative," she said. 

Coordinated entry essentially takes as much data as possible, and then attempts to help place people into housing. Filan said it helps separate who needs what help.

"Some people just need a security deposit and a couple months' rent," to get back on their feet, Filan said. Others need a whole lot more.

So while the Point in Time gives an idea of a moment, it's not considered to be a perfect measurement.

"This is not telling you just about homelessness, but about people responding to the survey," Filan said. "Given enough time, someone who understands stats and R (a programming language used in statistical analysis) could make the data work."

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Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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