Volunteer shortage shapes annual homeless count

PASCO — It might be weeks before the numbers are in from Thursday's annual count of the homeless in Benton and Franklin counties, but officials said the total count is less important than what the numbers say about who is homeless and why.

"The basic point of the count is to know your customers, know the people you're serving," said Leland Jones, a spokesman for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in Seattle. "In some sense it is an annual diagnostic exercise. ... It is intended to tell providers and (HUD) what is happening out on the streets."

Jones said the kind of people who are homeless and the reasons why they're homeless can change over time, and tracking the make-up of the homeless population helps local agencies figure out how to spend the money they receive from HUD to combat the problem.

The count is overseen locally by Benton-Franklin Community Action Committee, which sent volunteers out to food banks, low-income clinics, libraries, community centers and other places homeless people might be seeking shelter.

But a shortage of volunteers this year means the agency couldn't cover all of the places it traditionally seeks homeless people to survey, and the count could be lower than expected as a result.

Ronda Jayne, the CAC employee coordinating this year's count, said she didn't have anyone to send to the Golden Age Food Share and Tri-Cities Food Bank in Kennewick, as well as the Mid-Columbia Libraries branch in Connell.

She also didn't have enough people to cover all of the desired shifts at places such as the Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission in Pasco.

In many spots, volunteers had to work alone. Ideally, they should work in pairs both for camaraderie and safety, Jayne said.

She also is concerned that a lower count could give the wrong impression of the local situation.

"It may give the appearance we're doing a better job when (the count) is simply not manned well enough," she said.

First-time volunteer Luis Lopez didn't mind working alone at the Mid-Columbia Libraries branch in Pasco on Thursday, but found that convincing people to take the survey was a challenge.

As he neared the end of his shift, he'd had just one person fill out the form, while several others he approached said they were too busy or had to leave.

Nonetheless, Lopez said that he will be back to help out.

"This is probably the beginning of my doing this for a while," said Lopez, 33, of Pasco.

He said that he has been thinking about volunteering at the Union Gospel Mission for a while, and when he heard about the need for volunteers for the homeless count he decided it was time to get involved.

"I have always just looked at things and wanted to be able to help," he said.

"I can't walk around handing out checks, but I can give my time."