Homeless count to be conducted

Shelters, soup kitchens and other programs that serve the homeless will count heads this week to get a picture of homelessness in the community.

Authorities in Danville, Champaign-Urbana and across the country are surveying agencies to find out how many people they serve. Volunteers will also hit the streets Friday night for a street count of individuals who aren't using shelters or other services.

With the recession, "I think everyone is expecting more this year," said Darlene Kloeppel, social services director for the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.

"It wouldn't surprise me if there's an increase in homelessness in both shelters and on the street," said Tami Tunnell, executive director of A Woman's Place in Urbana, who is coordinating this year's effort.

The survey is mandated every two years so homeless providers can document the need for funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It's conducted nationwide during the same week, so as not to double-count individuals who may drift from city to city.

Some counties do their own counts on alternate years as well.

The Champaign-Urbana survey is organized by the Urbana-Champaign Continuum of Care, a federally mandated group of agency and government representatives charged with ending homelessness in the county.

The numbers tend to fluctuate each year based on weather and other factors.

The last survey, in 2007, counted 429 homeless individuals, up 39 percent from 2005. That included 177 children, half of them under age 5.

Among other things, the survey asks how long individuals have been homeless, the reason they are homeless, and background about employment, criminal records or health problems. "Homeless" can mean anything from sleeping on the street to staying in a shelter, hotel or with friends.

Kloeppel said the number of newly homeless individuals seems to be growing, though she won't know for sure until survey results are tabulated.

More and more people are using food pantries, seeking beds at shelters, and applying for emergency help to pay rent or utilities, she said. Many say they've lost jobs or just can't pay their bills anymore.

"There's a lot of marginal people out there," agreed Betty Seidel of Prairie Center Heath Systems, which runs substance-abuse treatment programs in Champaign-Urbana and Danville.

The survey likely undercounts the number of homeless, Kloeppel said. Many individuals, especially women with children, tend to move in with family members during the winter but may be homeless again in two months.

Vermilion, Piatt, Ford and Iroquois counties are part of the Central Illinois Continuum of Care in Bloomington. Coordinator Jennifer Nettleton said she's still collecting data from the surveys but has seen "a slight increase" so far.

Nationally, homelessness dropped 10 percent between the 2005 and 2007 surveys, according to the Homelessness Counts report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But numbers varied by state, with more than a third reporting increases in homelessness.

And a survey by Housing Action Illinois showed a "marked increase" in the need for services at homeless shelters across Illinois during the last six months of 2008.

About 71 percent of overnight and transitional shelters reported increases compared with the first half of the year, and 35 percent saw increases of more than 10 percent, the survey said.

The agency lobbied Congress for $1.5 billion more for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Emergency Shelter Grant program as part of the economic stimulus package proposed by President Barack Obama, said Bob Palmer, policy director for Housing Action Illinois.

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