Organizations work to count homeless population amid COVID-19

Organizations work to count homeless population amid COVID-19

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - First Fruit Ministries and the Cape Fear Council of Governments count the homeless population and work out what specific needs they may have to help change their circumstances.

“Our goal is always just creating relationships with people, giving them a connection and being able to tell their story,” said Mark Skolaski, the Outreach Director at First Fruit Ministries.

It’s a tall task as the organizations work to reach as many homeless community members as possible.

“I think the unsheltered is a difficult data point to capture because if you’re not there at the right time, right place, you could miss somebody,” said Homeless Continuum of Care Director Maegan Zielinski. “If it’s raining or if it’s really cold...It’s always a really difficult population to count, for sure.”

“They have a hotline that you can call,” said Charles Powers, who started dealing with homelessness just a week ago. “It’s to transition people into housing for the ones that qualify. I think it helps people out a lot, if that’s what they want instead of living in the street. I know that’s what I want.”

Last year, numbers were down—dropping from 450 to about 350. Zielinski hopes that trend continues, but she knows it’s not that simple.

“Our emergency shelters are not able to be at their full capacity because of the COVID-19 restrictions, so it’s really tough out there to get into the emergency shelter because of that,” said Zielinski. “It translates to...there’s a higher unsheltered population.”

To find out if her theory is right, they set out looking for those individuals Wednesday morning. With just a handful of people in their caravan, they stop at bus stations, street corners and even the library to ask people to fill out a short survey.

“[We ask about] homeless history, disability information, periods of homelessness, and just some basic demographic information as well,” said Zielinski. “Chronicity...so, we would like to see how many folks are experiencing chronic homelessness.”

One thing they hear over and over? Community members, some even with a full-time job, are on the streets while they struggle to find somewhere to live.

“There’s just a lack of housing. There’s a shortage,” explained Skolaski. “It’s the biggest obstacle that people are trying to overcome.”

Once the numbers are in, the hope is that change isn’t far behind.

“All of this really helps bring services into the state and into our communities,” said Zielinski. “It helps us with our grants to also bring in more resources.”

While these organizations were out today, they also handed out bags of essential items to the people they spoke with. The bags included things like hats and gloves, hygiene supplies, and face masks.

The data the groups collected today still has to be compiled before they send the full report to HUD. All the information won’t be available until March or April.

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