Haircuts, dental checks incentives in statewide homeless count

This is the Associated Press story that appeared in many newspapers as well as radio on the day of the count and the Project Homeless Connect events.

Haircuts, dental checks incentives in statewide homeless count
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 01/25/07

CAMDEN — Homeless people in New Jersey today were getting free haircuts, dental checkups and picking up food-stamp applications offered partly as a way to get them to places where they can be counted.

Over 24 hours, every county in the state was trying to complete a census of the homeless, which the federal Housing and Urban Development Department requires be conducted every two years. The results are used to help determine the size of federal homeless assistance grants.

New Jersey now receives about $35 million a year in federal aid for the homeless.

Thursday, like the day of the count two years ago, was among the colder days of the winter so far — a factor that can make getting a good count easier in some ways and more difficult in others.

On one hand, when it gets this cold, some people who usually do not utilize the shelter system are driven inside, said Alison Recca-Ryan, New Jersey director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, which is coordinating the New Jersey count.

But not everyone goes to a shelter. Some “really go into hiding,” Recca-Ryan said.

She and others are hoping that holding Project Homeless Connect, which offers services to homeless people, on the same day as the census will make the counting easier.

While most will be done at shelters and the sites for the 43 fairs where services will be offered, the census-takers — many of them employees at places that provide services to the homeless — were also on the streets looking for homeless people. And in rural areas, they were going to places where state police have noticed camp fires burning.

Apart from the head count, the agencies are trying to get a handle on whether people are getting the assistance available to them and how many children and veterans do not have homes.

One thing the census takers will probably not learn is the exact number of homeless — or even a certain sense of whether the number is rising or falling. In 2005, they counted about 11,000.

With a more aggressive effort this time, Recca-Ryan expects the number will be higher. But it will likely fall well short of the state’s estimate that there are 25,000 homeless, a discrepancy that shows how difficult it is to get an accurate figure.

The discrepancy also reflects a difference in definitions. HUD rules classify fewer people as homeless than some of those who serve the homeless might.

For example, people who “couch surf,” or stay with friends and family for short periods but do not have permanent homes, do not count as homeless under the federal rules, Recca-Ryan said.

Results of this year’s count are expected around the end of February.