A survey conducted annually across six northwestern Ohio counties, including Fulton County, indicates a decrease in the number of homeless but a dramatic increase in homeless youth and families.
The Point in Time survey, held each January by the Northwestern Ohio Community Action Commission (NOCAC), recorded 121 homeless persons in the survey area, as compared to 185 in 2015. However, 25 homeless families and 52 homeless youth were recorded this year, as compared to four families and seven youth reported in 2015.
Homeless families and youth were most evident in Defiance and Van Wert counties, with the former numbering eight and seven, and the latter 19 and 16, respectively.
The survey, which covers Fulton, Henry, Defiance, Williams, Paulding, and Van Wert counties, is directed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine annual funding needs for homeless programs.
In Fulton County, 28 people are designated homeless, including seven adult men, three adult women, five families, and nine youth. Henry County numbers total 18, Defiance County 37, and Williams County seven.
The dramatic rise in the family and youth categories is somewhat of a conundrum, said Matt Rau, the survey chair and director of NOCAC’s PATH Center, an emergency homeless shelter in Defiance. But there may be an explanation.
A shortage of volunteers to conduct the survey may have contributed to this year’s exclusion of Paulding County and a private emergency shelter located in Williams County. The numbers also may be skewed due to colder, snowier conditions during the winter of 2015, which attracted more homeless people to be counted at shelters and help agencies.
The Point in Time survey also excludes so-called “couch surfers,” homeless persons constantly moving from location to location, staying temporarily with family members and friends.
Volunteer surveyors combed the six counties for a 24-hour period on Jan. 26. But the survey likely missed some homeless persons simply because they can be difficult to find, Rau said. They often stay in abandoned buildings and sleep in unlocked cars.
“The reality, is, there are some that we just don’t know about. There are people homeless everywhere, so we don’t find everyone. These numbers are as accurate as we can get,” he said.
He said too many factors can be involved to attribute family homelessness to just one of them.
“The hardest thing for public to understand is, not all homeless are winos lying in the street. People can go from being secure to being homeless in as little as 30 days,” he said. “Some are very, very good people who just have an event in their life that makes them homeless. You can go from being comfortable to being homeless in a very short time.”
However, the current heroin scourge could also be contributing. Because it affects mainly the 18 to 35 age group that would include parents, it could explain some family homelessness.
Rau said skyrocketing addiction is the primary reason for homelessness across the United States, adding, “I don’t know if homelessness is affecting heroin as much as heroin is affecting homelessness.”
Heroin use could also account, in part, for the spike in youth homelessness, although other factors are certainly involved, he said. Some of the survey numbers are gathered from the homeless liaison assigned in each school district, and not all homeless students offer the information. Additionally, youth account for the greatest number of “couch surfers,” which are not included.
“That’s not to say there weren’t 50 (homeless youth) last year, too, but we just didn’t know about them,” Rau said.
Homelessness is also factored by domestic violence. Half of all women entering homeless shelters with children are fleeing an abusive relationship.
A third major, and continuous, cause is mental illness, Rau said. He added that, while nationally 20 to 25 percent of homeless persons have been diagnosed as mentally ill, “in my experience, mental illness is well over 50 percent.”
And homelessness has risen dramatically among convicted sex offenders. That particular crime can leave them rejected by potential employers and shelters.
Regardless of the cause, homeless persons can find help locally. Unfortunately, Rau said, some homeless people are reluctant to ask for help because they’re not comfortable giving out personal information.
“There are a lot of assistantance programs and agencies designed to help those situations, but we can only provide assistance for those who seek assistance,” he said. “Put your pride aside and get assistance. Short-term homelessness can turn into long-term homelessness real quick.”
The PATH Center in Defiance can shelter 20 people, and can arrange to temporarily accommodate entire families that may have trouble finding space.
“It’s easier to be homeless and fend for yourself as an individual than to be homeless as a family,” Rau said.
The center, which receives HUD funding, receives about 140 individuals annually, both walk-ins and referrals. The average stay is 23 days, and the staff collaborates with other local help agencies to help people find jobs and housing and track down their personal records.
The Fulton County Health Department offers immunizations and the services of its Reproductive Health and Wellness Clinic. Health Commissioner Kim Cupp said the department can also make referrals to the Bryan Community Health Center for dental services, and to the Free Clinic of Fulton County.
The county’s Job and Family Services Department can provide the Prevention, Retention, and Contingency Program, which offers short-term benefits and services to eligible families as a way to become self-sufficient. They include rental and utility assistance, job-related and retention services, and vehicle repair, among others.
The department also can provide food and cash assistance and Medicare information.
“Fulton County Job and Family Services is proud to be a member of the Northwest Ohio Housing Coalition with other community agencies, which strives to provide supports and programs to eliminate homelessness in our area,” Director Amy Metz-Simon said.
Both departments also distribute the 2016 Fulton County Resource Guide, a comprehensive list of local help agencies. And the homeless also can seek help by dialing 2-1-1.
County residents can help by donating money, food, clothes, and time, Rau said.
“The public needs to be aware that homelessness is real in the six-county area,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere any time soon. I don’t think we’re going to see numbers drop off the table.”
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.