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Survey leaves volunteers with mixed feelings
Hidden Homeless

Few people would feel comfortable stopping a complete stranger and asking them to answer a series of questions about their living arrangements.  It’s even more difficult when you are anticipating finding the person may be in a desperate situation for which you have no immediate answer.  But that’s exactly what a group of Great Bend volunteers committed to do the last week of January.
Between Jan. 23 and 31, they took part in the nationwide Point In Time Survey.  The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development asks all states receiving Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Grants to conduct the survey each January.
“While you do feel like you are invading into a bubble, the count did provide more awareness,” one volunteer said at a follow-up meeting. “You start noticing more dilapidated buildings than you ever have before.  I noticed more people that look like they could be homeless.”
Patty McGurk, director of Great Bend Catholic Social Services, served as coordinator for the PIT count for the four adjoining counties of Barton, Pawnee, and two others.  In Great Bend, volunteers included community members and representatives from several nonprofits including the Salvation Army, Hungry Hearts Soup Kitchen, the Barton County food bank, and local homeless shelters and halfway houses.  They canvassed the county during some of the coldest days and nights of the year in search of people who took shelter from the elements in the out of doors.  While some had cars to stay in, others were taken into the homes of compassionate people.  Others did not fit the parameters of the survey.  They were doubling up with friends or family, or had been allowed to stay in vacant houses in order to get out of the cold.  Some people interviewed were not homeless, but told volunteers they knew of others who were, who found shelter in public restrooms and culverts, as well as the area around the Arkansas river and bridge south of town.  
Some canvassed each of the smaller Barton County towns, and found while the number of homeless was not high, people in those communities seemed more aware of the homeless residing among them, and kept an eye out for them.  Still, in every city there were those who had no idea homelessness existed in their area.
Each volunteer received a packet of surveys and a stack of resource lists to hand out to people at the start of the week.  Several volunteers said the lists were appreciated, and that people they surveyed were not aware of the number of resources available.  
In fact, several want to see the resource lists made available in several places where homeless may frequent, and want to ensure the list is updated as needed.  Volunteers also began strategizing about the next count.  Taking a cue from the Wichita PIT group, the volunteers would like to see a two-pronged approach for the next count.  In addition to canvassing the county with the survey, an event could be planned to be held in a centralized location.
Doug Wallace with the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalitions, one of the lead organizations working with HUD to complete the survey, was in charge of organizing the count in rural Kansas.  He said Wichita has been very successful with service events over the past three years.  Numbers doubled after the first year of doing the event, he said in an email.
“You just have to be careful with how you set up the event so that you don’t create a situation in which people feel they need to lie to you to get the resources.”
Volunteers envisioned a community blanket, glove and hat drive, and giving the warm items to survey participants.   
“More awareness is needed,” McGurk said. “This has been so inspiring to us to see the volunteer  involvement and concern, and we hope they will all stay in touch with us.  It’s been a unifying community effort.”
McGurk expects a final report on the survey to be available in April.  Many area churches and social service organizations are anticipating using the results to help target outreach to the homeless community.