The flashlight beam tracked across the overgrown brush and tree limbs, searching for any sign of habitation.
Tina McAninch carefully watched as portions of a wooded area off of Greenwood’s Main Street were illuminated. She hoped to find a tent or tarp, or any sign that someone had made it their shelter for the night.
The location was known to attract the homeless when they didn’t have any other options. But on Wednesday night, it was deserted.
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“When the weather is warmer, it’s more likely that people will be sleeping outside. Once it gets cold like this, we start getting calls from churches about people looking for money for hotel rooms,” said McAninch, the director of the No Place to Call Home homelessness initiative.
She and other volunteers from social agencies throughout the county spent parts of Wednesday and Thursday looking for the homeless. They went to area motels that needy people turned to when they didn’t have any other place to stay. They canvassed underpasses, parks and other outdoor locations known to harbor small communities of the homeless.
At the free public meal offered by Tabernacle Christian Church, the volunteers talked to individuals and families about where they slept the night before. Churches, food pantries and other agencies helped count clients they interacted with.
The effort was part of the annual Point-in-Time count, a nationwide attempt to quantify the homeless problem.
“We just really chop up the agencies and locations in Johnson County, and we send volunteers out to those different places. Whether it’s a social service agency or under a bridge, we’re trying to find as many as we can,” said Kim Spurling, executive director of KIC-IT and community outreach coordinator for Franklin Community School Corp.
The Point-in-Time count is designed to be a snapshot of homelessness in a county, helping to understand the number and characteristics of persons who are homeless at one point in time. The count is required by the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development for every community receiving federal funds for programs to aid the homeless.
The department chooses a specific date during the last 10 days of January, and individual counties are asked to go to try and tabulate the number of homeless people on that day.
Doing so provides state agencies with tools to assess the homeless population in Indiana and allows officials to formulate and refine strategies aimed at ending homelessness in the state, according to Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, who also chairs the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, which oversees the count in Indiana.
“Conducting this count annually enables us track and focus our efforts in the areas of greatest need to provide services that directly and positively impact our most vulnerable neighbors,” she said in a statement.
Housing and Urban Development has stringent regulations for what constitutes being homeless. People who are “couch-surfing,” or staying with a friend or family member, do not count.
Those who would qualify include people who are living out of their cars, staying in local hotels or motels with financial assistance from social agencies or sleeping in tents somewhere, Spurling said.
The count has been conducted for many years in Johnson County. But with the formation of No Place to Call Home, a comprehensive community approach to homelessness, a greater effort has been made to search out and find the people without shelter for the count.
In 2016, they identified 38 people who met the definition of homeless. The year before, only three had been counted.
“This count is so vitally important, because it speaks to future grants for our county,” Spurling said. “Our numbers have been lacking, not because the individuals aren’t there, but because there hasn’t been this collaborative effort.”
For all of its importance in revealing the extent of the county’s homeless problem, actually finding those without a home is incredibly difficult.
If the county had a homeless shelter, that would be an obvious hub for the count. But without one, agencies have to be more creative.
“It’s literally going out and counting the homeless individuals ourselves,” said Nancy Lohr Plake, executive director of the United Way of Johnson County.
Leading up to the count, local organizers trained people to approach the homeless, inquire about their housing situation and properly fill out the form that the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires.
The forms inquire about a person’s name and age, how many months they have been on the streets, and if they are veterans.
“Those forms are the only way people will be counted, so we have to educate volunteers on how to use the form, use it appropriately and tactfully, and not scare people off,” McAninch said. “Those forms are also made available for social service agencies for folks coming in looking for assistance on Jan. 25.”
In advance, local count organizers also identified “pockets of poverty” within the community. They work with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, who helps point out where the homeless have found shelter in the past.
Volunteers then went out and visited those target areas for a 24-hour period, counting everyone who didn’t have a place to sleep that night.
McAninch spent hours Wednesday night going to golf courses, local parks and area businesses asking about homeless individuals who might frequent those locations.
She introduced herself and spoke to staff, finding out if the homeless were regulars at some of the 24-hour restaurants, trying to get out of the cold.
Though she didn’t find any homeless at first, she did learn from multiple businesses that homeless did come by, and left her contact information for the next time staff saw one of the regulars.
“It’s encouraging that they’re willing to help. It’s recognition that there’s an issue,” she said.
At Tabernacle Christian Church in Franklin, close to 25 people came in for a free community meal offered by the church. A majority of the people who come to the meals are not homeless, but the hot meal is also a logical place to look for those without shelter, Plake said.
She went table to table, sitting with each person and asking them about their housing situation. For those that weren’t homeless, she inquired about other issues they might have, and provided them with information about social service resources that might be able to help.
Results of the count cannot be released yet. All of the forms filled out will be returned to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where each will be reviewed and tallied. Typically, statistics are released to the public in June.
But even though those figures are important to the county’s homelessness work, officials warn people not to assume that the count encompass the entire homeless issue in Johnson County.
“This is an estimate. People see 25 or 55 or 105, but this isn’t counting all of the people who are homeless here. It’s not an accurate depiction. But it’s what (housing and urban development) has defined,” Spurling said.
Every year in late January, social service agencies try to tally the number of homeless people living in the county. Here are results for the past four years.
Total homeless persons;38;3;38;48
Total homeless households;28;2;Not available;21
People under;18;3;0;Not available;23
People 18 to 24;8;1;Not available;0
People over 24;27;2;Not available;25
Information from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority