Starting before dawn, volunteers, city staff and police counted as many of Peoria’s unsheltered people as possible last week.
Some of the volunteers have been affected by drug abuse by friends and family.
Bruce Allen of Scottsdale, who volunteers for various homeless outreach groups since retiring four years ago, said some of his family dealt with addiction in years past. Waking up at 5 a.m. or doing other related activities is not always fun, but he said the chance of making a change for somebody going through a tough time is what makes the time worth it.
“You realize there’s a forgotten segment of society and there’s a better way of life. You take a few minutes to talk about what we can do as a society and try to encourage them to turn their lives around,” Allen said.
“As a volunteer, you’re putting yourself in uncomfortable positions because you care.”
The “point in time” count took place around Maricopa County Tuesday, Jan. 28.
Cities, agencies and municipalities receiving federal funding to help homeless or sheltered populations are required to do an annual count.
The 2019 count found 78 homeless people in Peoria, double the previous year.
Peoria’s rise in homeless reflects a countywide trend. In 2019, the number of homeless people increased in Maricopa County for the sixth straight year, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).
The counts are submitted annually to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which uses the information to allocate and prioritize funding for homeless programs.
The number of people counted in Peoria last week will not be released by MAG until this spring.
For the first time, the annual count was conducted electronically using an application for phones and tablets.
Organizers divided Peoria into eight sections, with city staff driving volunteers to hotspots where the majority of the homeless counted were found in years past.
The most common places unsheltered people were found included parking lots outside gas stations, public parks and fast-food restaurants.
Volunteers met at 5 a.m. at city hall.
Bundled up, they then covered Peoria, using flashlights to try and find sleeping unsheltered people or those just waking up in the 48 degree, dark morning.
By the end of the activity – different groups finished at different times in the late morning or early afternoon before a final check-in – many were tired and had taken off layers to work more effectively in the sunny warmer weather. Most of the higher-populated areas were bustling by mid-morning, but hardly saw any foot traffic earlier in the day, other than counters.
Data from each unsheltered person willing to participate was entered electronically.
Volunteers asked homeless people questions such as their name, age, how long they had been homeless, past experiences and other questions based around their current lives.
Those sleeping or unwilling were counted by just basic data, such as their appearance, estimated age and location encountered.
The count served not only to figure out an estimated number of people who are without shelter, but also as a chance to offer help from the city of Peoria.
“We believe in trying to have as much data as possible. And, as we encounter individuals from throughout the community, we’ll get a handle on some of their situations, and also try to give out some of the help we can provide,” said Eric Strunk, Peoria’s deputy city manager.
There were 35 volunteers signed up for the 2020 count, which is more than years past, according to Chris Hallett, director of Peoria’s Neighborhood and Human Services Department.
“Every encounter is a chance to provide services, and it’s always a question of how many encounters it will take to make a difference,” Hallett said.
For others, like Gabby Williams of the Phoenix Rescue Mission, the count helps do a better job of providing services.
Phoenix Rescue Mission was contracted to work with Peoria in October. It aims to interact with unsheltered people and transport them to services they need.
Williams handed out several business cards and encouraged homeless people to contact her organization for help.
Caring outreach is crucial, she said.
“I just like talking to people and listening to. their stories. It will open your eyes certain things are going on. If there’s a repetitive story you hear, it can mean there’s something happening in that town or with this segment of people you can try to advocate change for,” Williams said.
Strunk said the outreach helped instill in the volunteers and workers a further sense of community with the people in their city.
“It’s a reminder we’re all human beings at the end of the day, and sometimes people have rough spots in their life,” he said.
“And, it’s good to know individuals are taking the time to go out and tell people they matter, and we’re willing in the city to try and engage and help out where we can.”