A total of 20 volunteers dedicated their Thursday to count the homeless population in Ellis County. But that was not the highlight of the afternoon of work.

Unofficially, a total of 51 people were classified as homeless in Ellis County during the annual and national Point-in-Time count. The survey previously found 14 homeless people in 2018.

The 24-hour period also allowed the Waxahachie Police Department to continue to foster a relationship with the homeless population, which initially sparked last year.

The Housing and Urban Development —also known as HUD — which is an executive branch of the U.S. Federal Government, requires the annual count. The conduction of this survey benefits the Homeless Coalition in Ellis County by monitoring trends, being able to identify unmet needs, assisting in the development of new services and raising community and political awareness.

The PIT count occurs in a 24-hour window within the final 10 days of January. The information gathered at this time is reported to HUD, which provides funding based on these numbers.

Out of the 51 people counted, 48 were unofficially classified as unsheltered, and the remaining three were classified as sheltered.

The chair of the Homeless Coalition in Ellis County, Rev. John Stout, who also serves as the president of Runner’s Refuge, a nonprofit that assists the homeless community, elaborated on the data collected for 2019.

“It appears many of the unsheltered were transient and just moving through the county to reach their final destination,” Stout detailed. “This is good news for Ellis County. It shows that we are taking care of our indigent population very well.”

The parameters in determining if a person is homeless are strict and do not include individuals who live in substandard housing, a hotel/motel paid with own funds, lived in permanent supportive housing or used VASH vouchers.

Those who qualify under “sheltered homeless” live in supervised shelters, congregated shelters, a Safe Haven and domestic violence shelters.

Stout informed the Daily Light it would be a couple of weeks before the government finalized the data collected and the information would be sent back to the coalition.

“I believe that with the number of disabled single member indigent households we have seen in Waxahachie, this is a good time to begin a conversation with the city about expanding the Local Public Housing Authority and offering solutions that will build on the quality care and concern we are already providing in this county,” Stout advocated.

THE ENCOUNTERS

When the PIT count was first conducted in Ellis County, it allowed the Waxahachie Police Department to establish a relationship with the local homeless community.

On Thursday, two WPD officers, who are also certified with a mental health specialty license, escorted one of the 20 volunteers to survey known individuals.

This was the second year for Sgt. Joshua Oliver to escort volunteers with the PIT count. For his partner, patrol officer Clay Sibley, and the PIT count volunteer, Mollie Moore, the career development coordinator with Presbyterian Children’s Home and Services in Waxahachie, it was their first time to participate.

Last year, Oliver aided five Southwestern Assembly of God University students as they documented approximately four homeless people in Waxahachie.

As a result of the experience, the WPD was able to maintain a pulse with the local homeless community, which helped classify this population in 2019.

Sibley drove Moore around the City of Waxahachie in a WPD-issued suburban, while Oliver followed. Together, the group made encounters with four individuals.

Throughout the three-hour hunt for local homeless people, the two officers and Moore trucked through woods where people have been spotted in the past and flashed lights into cars suspected of housing individuals.

Two homeless people were spotted the Dollar General, and both had roofs over their heads. One man disclosed his home on Getzendaner Road did not have a heating or cooling, nor running water. Next, a known man who suffered from mental illness was documented at the Ellis County Appraisal office on Ferris Avenue.

The final two men found were at the parking garage in downtown Waxahachie. One man was asleep, and the other was friends with the officers.

Before the two squad cars entered the garage, Oliver had already mentioned one of the men who lived there named Willie. During the PIT count, the group made contact with Willie who proved to be the eccentric individual described by the officers.

The 63-year-old man shared with Moore his race, location, age and acknowledged that he gets support from friends and then pointed at the man asleep around the corner. Willie sat on a chair on the first floor of the garage with his feet resting on a small pillow and allowed the Daily Light to photograph him.

Oliver mentioned that Willie is a singer and usually participates in karaoke at Big Al’s Down the Hatch on Wednesday nights. After Willie concluded the interview with Moore, he proudly recited the song “My Girl,” his go-to song.

Moore asked Willie if he was interested in a spaghetti dinner provided at the House of Praise, which served as the hub for the PIT count. Willie seemed more than interested and Moore coordinated transportation.

Oliver noted the positive interactions with the homeless have made their jobs easier at times.

Oliver mentioned a homeless man who lives downtown that would leave his belongings stuffed under a bench during the day.

“The police department didn’t want to get involved in a way that would hurt his feelings, or make him mad,” Oliver explained sympathetically. “We wanted him to move his stuff so it wouldn’t be so much of an eyesore. It turned out to be a pretty good deal since we already had that relationship with him.”

Oliver explained that tips on homeless people usually come from residents who are concerned about the strangers’ well being. The officers conduct welfare checks to ensure the individuals are aware of services in the area and offer assistance if needed.

“A lot the time they are passing through and will stay in Waxahachie for a couple of days and panhandle and get some food,” Oliver explained. “Because of that, we do we see a lot of homeless people making their way through to the Austin and Dallas areas.”

Sometimes it is even farther than that. Oliver noted a gentleman on the highway walking from Detroit to get to San Antonio. “He said it was warmer here,” Oliver laughed.

Oliver continued to explain that WPD officers pushed helpfinder.org and provide cards to individuals that list local services for help.

“We didn’t have this a year ago when we started the homeless count,” Oliver said. “Last year when Melissa [PIT count leader] headed this up, we didn’t have the resources we do now, and it’s really neat to see how much it’s grown between this year and last year. Hopefully, those resources can keep coming in.”

Oliver mentioned some of the homeless people who live on the streets do not desire to be housed in a shelter because they do not want to live by rules, or live well in social situations and just want to be alone.

Stout elaborated on people who experience long-term chronic homelessness.

“Eventually, they will grow accustomed to the conditions and resign themselves to permanent homelessness,” Stout explained. “I am not sure if you could say they are comfortable with the lifestyle more than they feel they have no hope of ever getting into housing, so they stop trying.”

A FLAWED SYSTEM

The rest of the evening, the group came up short on people and began to note some flaws in the PIT count.

Oliver questioned the time of year the PIT Count took place — January — and referenced it as one of the coldest times of the year.

“This is not the time of year we see an influx of homeless people,” Oliver emphasized. “It’s usually through March and August when you see people. During the warmer times, especially in the downtown area, we will see quite a few homeless people.”

In a parking lot off U.S. Highway 77, the group discussed this issue after they scoped out a popular area for homeless people to gather. The area was located near some dumpsters behind a business and included a lot of trash from food and about three mattresses.

Moore noted the irony of HUD requiring the PIT count to take place at a time of year uncommon for the homeless to be out and about because HUD uses the numbers to analyze how to properly distribute resources and funding.

“We run across way more of the homeless population just day-to-day,” Sibley said. “I would say it’s hard to tack them down and unfortunately I don’t think the numbers we are going to get on something like this is going to be as accurate as it needs to be.”

From the day’s experience, the group encountered three legitimate homeless people. Sibley said there are approximately 20 people in Waxahachie who would be classified as sheltered and unsheltered homeless people. Oliver agreed with that figure.

“It’s really hard to track down everybody in a short time span with it being cold outside," Sibley elaborated. "A lot of people typically move from their regular locations to try and find some kind of temporary shelter like a parking garage.”

Sibley also mentioned people who live in their cars and the difficultness to find those individuals because they move around.

“Usually we find them in the early morning hours when no one else is around, and there are no cars on the road; nobody is shopping," Sibley explained. That’s is when their cars stand out to us.”

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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 4699-517-1450