The number of people in homeless shelters and living on the streets was up significantly compared to last year and before the pandemic, according to an annual local count.
The 2023 Point-in-Time Count of homelessness included 790 people, 106 of whom were unsheltered, according to recently released results from Montgomery County. In the previous five years, the count had generally been between 500 and 650 people, with no more than 51 unsheltered.
Compared to the early 2020 pre-pandemic PIT Count total, there was a 23% overall increase in amount of people, a 15.4% increase of those in shelters and a 114% increase in the number of persons sleeping unsheltered.
This year’s count was held overnight Jan. 26.
“Unfortunately, this trend isn’t unique to Dayton and Montgomery County,” Kathleen Shanahan, Montgomery County’s Housing and Homeless Solutions program coordinator, told the Dayton Daily News. “Continuums of care across the country have seen increases both in overall rates of homelessness and in the number of persons sleeping unsheltered.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a count of sheltered and unsheltered people to take place during the last 10 days of January each year to ensure consistency across the country.
For the sheltered count, individuals included were those sleeping in an emergency shelter such as Daybreak, Gettysburg Shelter for Men, Holt Street, St. Vincent de Paul Shelter for Women & Families and the YWCA Dayton Domestic Violence Shelter.
For the unsheltered count, volunteers searched both known and possible locations, including abandoned or vacant properties, cars, woods, park benches and underpasses, according to the county. It also identified individuals at area meal and services sites who indicated they were sleeping in an unsheltered situation.
“The primary goal of the Point in Time Count is to get a snapshot of the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night as a way to understand how the need compares to our inventory of shelter, housing and services,” Shanahan said. “We use the results to help with local planning to ensure we have the right mix of shelter, outreach and other services.”
Conducting the PIT Count also fulfills a requirement of the county’s largest single funder for housing and services for people experiencing homelessness — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Also, canvassing the entire community on a single night and surveying at area meal and service sites sometimes helps identify people experiencing unsheltered homelessness who had not been connected to shelter or outreach and can begin the process of connecting them, Shanahan said.
The issues contributing to homelessness are multi-faceted, so the solutions must be multi-faceted, said Jessica Jenkins, Montgomery County’s director of Human Services Planning and Development.
“This includes addressing disparities in the system, connecting people with services, increasing collaboration across departments and agencies to fill gaps and, most importantly, increasing the availability of affordable housing,” Jenkins said.
Point-in-time homeless count
|People in Shelters||499||528||593||463||531||684|
Source: Montgomery County (*federal waiver in 2021, no unsheltered count due to COVID-19)
Possible factors contributing to the surge in homelessness are the end of the COVID-era eviction moratorium, rising housing costs, inflation and comparatively stagnant wages, county officials said.
The region also is still grappling with the effects of the 2019 tornadoes, which damaged or destroyed thousands of affordable housing units.
Shanahan said it’s difficult to say exactly why the “unsheltered” number specifically has risen so dramatically compared to pre-pandemic levels, as there are many different reasons why people may choose not to stay in shelter. That said, the COVID-19 pandemic is a contributing factor, she said.
“People were reluctant to enter a congregate shelter during the pandemic,” Shanahan said. “The number of households in shelter in late 2022 and early 2023 was very high. (St. Vincent de Paul Society) didn’t turn people away, but higher numbers in shelter may lead to some people seeking shelter elsewhere.”
Michael Vanderburgh, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, expressed similar sentiments.
“The pandemic conditioned us to not be in larger groups,” Vanderburgh said. “So people are are accustomed to keeping to themselves more than they were before.
St. Vincent de Paul has had “several reconfigurations” over the five years Vanderburgh has been in charge.
“In addition to the pandemic renovations for social distancing, the biggest change was converting our family dorm to a single adult dorm,” he said. “Twenty years ago we had more families than singles, and that gradually changed to today’s 85% singles.”
While the non-profit learned that whatever capacity it created in the shelter will get utilized, people will choose not to be there because they perceive that there are too many people there, Vanderburgh said.
“When when we tend to be full, people are more likely to choose not to want to be there,” he said.
A lack of affordable housing remains the biggest reason people experience homelessness, Shanahan said.
Rental housing in the community is running between 93% to 97% percent occupied, so there are very few vacancies, she said.
“There are people in shelter who have a housing voucher or rental subsidy to help pay their rent who are struggling to find available units and landlords willing to take the subsidies,” Shanahan said.
Montgomery County’s Continuum of Care includes several resources designed to meet people where they are and to connect them with services, according to county officials. People at risk of losing housing or needing help finding permanent shelter again can check out the help available at the county’s housing assistance resources page at www.tinyurl.com/homelessassist.
Vanderburgh said the number of men, women and children in both of its shelters is about 500 a night this week, “which is 500 too many, but certainly better than the (record-high) 622 that we had a few weeks ago.”
“This is just another another reason for people to not want to be around other people, especially people they don’t know, but we just spent the last two-and-a-half years practicing isolation, so it stands to reason that some people are going to want to isolate as one of their one of their primary options,” he said.
Further complicating matters beyond the pandemic is inflation, changing employment practices and shifting demographics.
“We have the demographers who are telling us that the senior homeless population is going to triple in the next 15 to 20 years,” Vanderburgh said. “We’ve already seen a lot of this play out, but just in the five years that I’ve been here, the people in shelter tend to be older and sicker, and they have both physical ailments and mental health ailments and ... when you’re alone, navigating physical ailments and mental health ailments is much more difficult than when you’re not.”