Today communities across the nation are conducting "point in time counts" to estimate the extent and causes of homelessness. These counts are street level surveys done every two years by teams of human service and law enforcement workers and volunteers.
I participated in the Plainfield count which was coordinated by the Union County Department of Human Services. We found a lot of homeless people in Plainfield. Between 4 and 7:30 am our teams visited vacant buildings where we were able to make contact with 40 people. Our police escorts woke them up so we could fill out questionaires, provide food and clothing and make referrals for help as needed.
There was a group of people living in a vacant multi-family house near the downtown train station. Reasons given for their homelessness included unemployment, criminal justice system involvement, substance abuse and the high cost of housing. They were encouraged to go to the Plainfield YMCA shelter and they declined. The reason given was bed bugs. An unheated building does not have bed bug problems but the shelter does. Later I was told by an Bridgeway outreach worker that the Y works hard to deal with bed bugs and generally succeeds but this is a difficult problem to eradicate.
Nearby, a vacant office building was temporary shelter for a group of young men who are doing day labor and, apparently, saving money on rent. Only one of ten spoke English and through him we convinced them to go to the county social services office at Park Madison to get shelter vouchers.
Homelessness has many causes. Mental illness and substance abuse are common causes and are often associated with chronic homelessness. People with these problems are more likely to be noticed by the public. During an economic downturn, poverty and unemployment cause a surge in homelessness and we saw that today. Places like Plainfield see increased vacancies and foreclosures and some homeless people will find these locations as their least bad housing option.
Many people who experience homelessness are invisible to most of us. I may blog more on this. For now, I hope my observations helps the reader's understanding of homelessness in our community.