For the past three years, Richmond County has earned the distinction of having the state’s third-largest homeless population.
In January, volunteers counted nearly 800 homeless men, women and children living in shelters or on the street.
It wasn’t something to brag about, but it helped the city collect nearly $2 million in grants to combat homelessness.
Now, as the state finalizes its numbers for the nation’s annual homeless assessment report for Congress to determine future funding needs, the number is being challenged and debated – with housing officials, health care providers and social service agencies taking different positions on how large or small the city’s homeless population actually is.
Some agree it’s 800 as reported, while others say the number is lower, possibly 610, or perhaps no more than 140.
As efforts to help Augusta’s homeless veterans have intensified, their numbers have become a point of contention as well, with different official estimates of as few as 16 or as many as 126.
Most agree that estimating the homeless population is like “hitting a moving target,” and in Augusta, the argument is largely about how to accurately interpret a new definition of homelessness instituted by the federal government last fall.
“With people coming in and out of homelessness all the time, it’s a very dynamic population that can be hard to get a sense of who’s included,” said Jereon Brown, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that regulates U.S. homeless criteria.
For years, HUD has followed the direction of Congress, using a literal definition of homelessness to maximize the limited amount of assistance funding by targeting only those on the street or in emergency housing.
In 2009, Congress passed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act to include people who were doubling-up with family and friends and considered at “imminent” risk of losing their primary nighttime residence.
The added language – aimed at determining prevention funding, not outreach funding – was officially integrated into HUD’s homeless definition in December 2011, spread to the masses in January 2012 and put into effect the following fall.
Today, the Federal Register defines the “homeless” as a person or family lacking a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” or a person or family who will “imminently lose their primary nighttime residence.”
Brown said the new terminology challenged local record keepers by forcing social workers and volunteers not only to find homeless people seeking refuge in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, airports, campgrounds or public transit stations, but also emergency shelters, transitional housing, and hotel rooms paid for by charitable organizations or government programs.
Survey produces varied opinions
In January, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs distributed 1,800 copies of an expanded housing status survey to 24 service agencies in Augusta.
While participants were identified only by their initials and date of birth, the two-page, 14-question survey was comprehensive, asking people whether they have identified their next residence; what federal benefits they receive; and whether they have a disability, have ever served in the military, have been a victim of domestic violence, or have alcohol or drug addiction.
Kennesaw State University, the research partner in the project, accepted 796 surveys and the state cataloged the data, but what it found depends on whom you ask.
Kim Blanchard, the coordinator of the census, continues to stand by to the report she provided to The Chronicle in June, saying survey results indicate there are 800 homeless people in Augusta.
Jason Rodriguez, the data coordinator for the state Housing Trust Fund for the Homeless, said the survey results show 610 people as homeless: 163 in emergency shelters, 167 in transitional housing, 135 on the street and 145 precariously housed.
Because of “variances” in the data, Daniel Evans, the planning and development coordinator at the Augusta Housing and Community Development Department, said he is not comfortable with Rodriquez’s estimate of the unsheltered population for Augusta.
Evans said there are 146 people roaming the streets, bringing his homeless total to 621.
The figure was reported by Evans on Aug. 27, just five days after he reported 140 people as homeless in an e-mail that was sent to The Chronicle.
Numbers muddy the waters
In the past 12 months, the Augusta Continuum of Care had funding for seven homeless assistance projects renewed, with the area receiving more than $681,000 from HUD.
By comparison, Columbus and Athens, which have smaller homeless populations than Augusta, had funding for five and 10 projects renewed for $1.3 million and $800,000, respectively.
Atlanta and Savannah, which top the state in homelessness, received $11.5 million and $3.9 million.
The numbers frustrate Blanchard, who said service agencies are working to get resources together and help the less fortunate who knock on their doors daily in need of assistance.
“Some people may look at the numbers and think it is high, other may look at the numbers and think it is low, but social service workers, like myself, look at the numbers and say, ‘You know what, it doesn’t matter,’ because we are not meeting the needs of the community,” Blanchard said.
This month, Blanchard spoke with members of the Augusta Commission, proposing the city do a count this fall to coincide with Stand Down for the Homeless on Nov. 1.
Put on by the Salvation Army and the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the event provides services and goods to the homeless.
Evans agreed, saying that although the point-in-time count provides very comprehensive trend data, it provides only a “snapshot” of the homeless problem in Augusta.
“My perspective is these numbers are more of a projection,” said Evans, who took his position with the city in November after serving as director at St. Stephens Ministry. “I think HUD’s intention is to produce more of a solid count, but based on the fact that you have medium-skilled, medium-trained volunteers doing semi-structured research, it’s a little dangerous to call it hard statistics.”
Nonprofit keeps own records
Jim Lorraine, the executive director of the Augusta Warrior Project, said HUD’s figures are not always reliable.
As a result, the nonprofit organization that aims to help veterans get jobs, education and homes, works off goals instituted by the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program and has developed its own “vet tracker” software.
According to online data, AWP housed 127 veterans through $623,500 in federal funding in 2012, when it was expected to house 85.
In 2013, the organization has housed 83 veterans. The goal set by SSVF, which funded AWP’s parent agency, the Central Savannah River Area Economic Opportunity Authority, was 90.
“We took the low-hanging fruit, and now it’s a little harder to find homeless veterans,” said Lorraine, maintaining that his agency has “virtually eliminated” veteran homelessness in Augusta.
Lorraine says HUD’s data shows 16 homeless veterans in Augusta.
However, a 2013 HUD spreadsheet provided by the city showed 16 unsheltered homeless veterans, 31 in local shelters; 13 in transitional housing; eight in a hotel or medical facility; and 17 as precariously housed, for a total of 85.
Lorraine says there is “no way” the data is accurate and that his agency is in local shelters and on the street daily, looking for veterans who were reported to them as homeless.