Here’s an inside look at Valley’s yearly census of unhoused population

Jan 26, 2024, 4:35 AM | Updated: 6:35 am

PHOENIX — It was a cold, rainy morning as volunteers and workers with the city of Phoenix and local nonprofits like Community Bridges Inc. (CBI) gathered at Burton Barr Library on Tuesday for the 2024 point-in-time homelessness count.

The goal of the annual effort, which is mirrored in cities across the Valley, is to census people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County.

The results of each count help leaders decide how to distribute money to programs that help unhoused people in the county.

I followed a team of people taking part in this year’s count. Joining me were two program coordinators with the Phoenix Office of Homeless Solutions: Charles Lee and Jeremy Huntoon.

CBI Senior Director of Housing and Community Integration Anne-Marie Johnston was also part of our group.

The three of them asked people experiencing homelessness for basic demographic information, such as how long they’ve been homeless or how many times they’ve been homeless.

How the 2024 point-in-time count began

It was dark as we set out for an empty patch of desert located southeast of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. We found a large encampment of tents on the Grand Canal Trail.

The muddy ground, cold wind and lingering rain made it hard for counters to find unhoused people because the harsh weather forced people experiencing homelessness to find shelter in atypical areas.

Eventually, our group met a veteran named Don.

“There’s seven people in his encampment,” Johnston told me. Counters consider any individual structure, like a tent, to be an encampment. “With the rain, everybody is counting on him. He got the fire going.”

Counters arranged for food to be sent to the area. They told me they planned to get Don into shelter the following day.

Many people ask for help during the annual homelessness count

Multiple people at the encampment asked for help during count interviews, including a woman who introduced herself as Pumpkin.

She told counters she didn’t want to give her real name over fears her family might find her. She also said she has experienced homelessness before.

“With my kids and my ex-husband, (we) ended up in CASS,” Pumpkin told counters. She was referring to Central Arizona Shelter Services, which is Arizona’s largest homeless shelter system. “Because of that, they took our kids.”

Now, she wants to get into another shelter, get back on her feet and get her kids back.

Later, a counter told her shelter space was located for both her and her current boyfriend, who introduced himself as Reaper. Both of them cried with joy.

How the point-in-time count will impact Maricopa County

The Maricopa County Association of Governments (MAG) will compile the data and present it to the public later this year.

Last year, there were 9,642 people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County on the night of Jan. 23rd, according to Keys to Change, a local nonprofit. It was a near-even split of sheltered and unsheltered people and an increase from 2022.

Johnston told me the point-in-time count is a key source of data for local governments and profits. However, it also offers opportunities to connect with people.

“It’s not always just about getting to the shelter or housing, but about building that individual rapport along the way,” she said. “Everyone has their own individual story out here.”

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Here’s an inside look at Valley’s yearly census of unhoused population