A study of homelessness in the county

Published 6:12 pm Friday, October 28, 2016

Imagine yourself without a home or apartment. You have no place to sleep at night. You’d like to have a job but you have no place to shower or wash your clothes. You’re shuffled between social agencies and homeless shelters. You have to depend on soup kitchens and food pantries to feed yourself. You need to go to the bathroom but there isn’t one you can use so you urinate and defecate wherever you can find a little privacy.

This may never be a reality for you, but this is what it’s like for people forced to survive in the heat of summer and the cold of winter without a roof over their heads and a meal in their stomachs.

Beginning today and continuing for the next three weeks, this column will examine the issue of homelessness in the City of Washington. How many homeless persons (men, women and children) live in the city? What are their back-stories? How did they come to be homeless? What is it like to live without dependable shelter, food and medical care? How do they survive? What governmental and local non-profit services are available for them? What can you do to help?

The first part of the series will focus on “The Big Picture” — what causes homelessness, and national, state and local statistics. The remaining three articles will focus on the stories of local homeless men, women and children and conclude with some ideas about how they might be better helped to acquire services and adequate housing: Part 2, “Single men and homelessness,”will run on Nov. 5; Part 3, “Single women and women with children,” on Nov. 12; and Part 4, “Going forward: the future,” on Nov. 19.


Part 1 — The Big Picture

There is a lot of confusion in the United States about what causes homelessness. Conventional wisdom suggests that persons become homeless because of some default in their characters. This may be due to how homeless persons are often portrayed in magazines, on TV and in movies. The stereotypical homeless person is presented as a single, lazy, shiftless male who suffers from mental illness and/or is addicted to alcohol or drugs and prefers to live on the street rather than in a shelter.

Stereotypical descriptions are deceptive because they contain grains of truth. Some homeless persons (as we shall see, a small percentage) do fit the stereotype. However, while character flaws and mental illness may contribute to the worsening of a homeless person’s life once he has become homeless, most national studies and surveys over the last 30 years reveal that other factors are more causative. The causes of homelessness, the studies reveal, have less to do with individual morality and choices or mental illness and more to do with systemic economic policies over which they have no control.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, homelessness is a byproduct of: 1) the scarcity of affordable housing, and 2) the insufficiency of income to afford housing. Defects of character and mental illness may compound the problem, but they don’t cause it. People of good morals and perfectly sane individuals lose access to housing every day.

Another false assumption is that the typical homeless person is a single male. A 2014 report to Congress by the Department of Housing and Urban Development revealed that 37.4 percent of the national homeless population consists of women with children. According to a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the top causes of homelessness among families are: 1) lack of affordable housing; 2) unemployment; 3) poverty; and 4) low wages, in that order. In addition, for women, domestic violence is a main contributor to the loss of adequate shelter.

Joan (an amalgamation of several women) is a prime example. Joan and her two children were forced to abandon their home when her husband became physically abusive. At the time, she worked part-time at a megastore as a “sales clerk” for minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, to help with family expenses. If she was fortunate to work 20 hours in a week, Joan might be able to net $125, after deductions. That amounts to $500 per month which was enough to supplement her husband’s income but not nearly sufficient to afford a two-bedroom apartment of her own, much less allow her to buy groceries, pay insurance for a car or take her children to a doctor when they got sick.

Joan would not have fared any better in Beaufort County. According to a report issued by the North Carolina Housing Coalition in 2015, the fair market monthly rent plus utilities for a modest two-bedroom apartment in Beaufort County was $632. At that rate, Joan would have needed to earn $25,280 annually, or $12.15 per hour. The typical county renter, however, earns only $7.98 per hour. At the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, a worker would need two full-time jobs to afford to rent an apartment.

Joan was caught between a rock and a hard place, an abusive husband and the street. She couldn’t stay with a man who was using her as a punching bag in front of her children, but she couldn’t afford to get her own apartment. So she and her children ended up at a homeless shelter in Greenville while they waited for a room to become available at Ruth’s House, Washington’s only domestic violence shelter.

The homeless population nationwide also includes school age children (possibly as many as 1.2 million national wide) who are forced to balance a life on the streets or in a shelter with trying to learn how to read and write.

Veterans make up to 11 percent of the homeless population. They usually become homeless due to war-related injuries which cause physical disabilities, mental anguish and post-traumatic stress, which make it difficult to acquire and maintain permanent housing.

A final assumption about the typical homeless person is that he is a burden on law enforcement personnel. According to Capt. William Chrismon of the Washington Police Department, however, the homeless cause no more problems for the department than the average citizen. “Homeless persons rarely break the law,” Chrismon said. Arrests are rare. No serious complaints have been filed in his memory. The most serious charge within the last year was for minor larceny.

“When dealing with homeless persons down on their luck,” he said, “we try to help rather than arrest.”


By the numbers: Beaufort County and the City of Washington

During the night of Jan. 28, 2016, a group of hardy local volunteers fanned out across Beaufort County in a federally mandated effort to determine, as accurately as possible, the number of homeless persons living in the county.

Point-in-Time Counts, as they are called, are conducted community by community, on a single night in January each year. They provide a snapshot of how many persons in the county are homeless on a single night. The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities to submit this data in order to qualify for federal homeless assistance funds. The Beaufort County “Point-in-Time” counters recorded 21 persons as homeless on Jan. 28.

Counters are required to adhere to HUD definitions when conducting the count. For a person to have been counted as homeless by HUD he/she would have had to be included in one of four categories. PIT counters in North Carolina, however, are instructed to include only persons in the first category. For the purposes of this series, I will do the same.

Category 1: Literal homelessness. It is this group that most readily comes to mind when one thinks of homeless persons. Homeless persons, according to HUD, are “individuals and families who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

The group includes those who might be seen around the county and city living in:

  • camping grounds
  • emergency shelters (like Zion Shelter for men in Washington)
  • domestic violence shelters (like Ruth’s House for women and children)
  • transitional housing
  • public or private places not designed for or ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodations for human beings, like cars, parks and abandoned buildings.

On Jan. 28, bundled-up against the cold, Beaufort County recorders found two women sheltering at Ruth’s House, 12 men at Zion Shelter and three women and four men living out of doors in cars, parks, abandoned buildings or open fields.

Persons with no other option than to “sleep on other people’s couches” (doubling up with family and friends) are not included in the count.

For this and other reasons, the results of the annual homeless count are not without critics. In addition to limiting the count to only one night of the year and a single HUD category, the count also excludes motel occupants paying their own way. This inevitably means that some will be missed.

The totals are also skewed downward by the fact that some homeless persons refuse to take part in the count, choosing to remain invisible and anonymous, disappearing behind big-box stores where they are less likely to inspire the housed to demand their removal.

This is the case, for example, for a rather large group of homeless men, women and children of Latino descent who camp out near the Pamlico River and for a group of men who occupy vacant fields behind fast food restaurants and home improvement centers along Carolina Avenue in the City of Washington.

If these persons had been included in the 2016 count, the number of homeless persons in Beaufort County might have been as high as 35-40, according to one Zion Shelter staff member familiar with that population.


State Statistics

While volunteers were identifying homeless persons in Beaufort County, their North Carolina counterparts were doing the same in counties across the state. The results were then sent to Raleigh where they were tabulated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The Department announced that in 2016, 10,683 North Carolina men, women and children lacked “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Of that total, over half (53 percent) were living in emergency shelters, and 23 percent were sleeping in cars, parks, abandoned buildings and on sidewalks.

Perhaps the most alarming statistics revealed by the 2016 Count are that 1,313 (12 percent) are part of families with children, 1,092 (10 percent) are veterans of American wars, 17 percent are adults with a serious mental illnesses and 22 percent are adults with a substance abuse disorder.

As any good accountant or politician can tell you, statistics only tell part of the story. Moreover, they are impersonal. Next week’s article will include reports of interviews with three former and present homeless men in Washington: how they came be to homeless, what that is/was like for them, and how two of them managed, with help, to find permanent shelter.

Polk Culpepper is a retired Episcopalian priest who resides in Washington.