The John Hanson Sr. Community Hall was filled with free supplies last year for the Project Connect Point-In-Time Count. (Photo by Ashley Kawashima)

A local aid organization will count Petersburg’s homeless population on January 31st. It’s part of an effort led by HUD—the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development—to document the nation’s homeless population on a single evening. It’s called a point-in-time count. KFSK’s Rachel Cassandra talked with the president of Humanity in Progress, Ashley Kawashima. Her group has led the count for the last six years. 

Ashley Kawashima: The Point in Time Count itself is a nationwide survey that occurs on one evening, once a year. And it’s the same night for every state. So here in our community, because we don’t have a shelter, or like a soup kitchen, or anything like that, we actually host an event, which is called the Project Connect Resource Fair, which is an opportunity for people experiencing housing insecurity to come together and be able to get connected with resources and things like that—to be able to get clothing and food. And then at that event is when we do the Point-in-Time Count survey, which asks them where they slept the night before. How many months in the past year, have they experienced homelessness? We do some demographic things on like domestic violence, things like that. All of that data then gets recorded into the state database, which is shared nationwide.

Rachel Cassandra: So what happens to those numbers?

AK: It will help us to become eligible for grant funding, especially the state grants or federal grants that you would apply for- They want specific, measurable data on what’s going on in your community. Then in addition to that, like humanity and progress, for example, we use that data just as education points.

I think a really important thing to remember though, is that this isn’t a whole picture of what’s going on. This is just a number of the people on that one evening that we were able to get to this one event, once a year. We had three participants at our first event. We went up to 40-something the second year. Last year, we had over 100 participants. We’re shooting for probably 150 for this year. We have a lot of really meaningful conversations with participants. And we really have seen just like what the lack and resources were, or where the barriers were to getting access to resources and housing.

RC: And so, of those 150 participants, are you imagining most of those folks are struggling with housing insecurity?

AK: There’s two separate numbers. So we collect the number of people that are coming to the event that are experiencing housing insecurity, which are guests for this year, we are anticipating about 150 people. And then separate from that, we take the survey data, which will give us the exact number of people that are currently experiencing homelessness. That number has also increased over time.

Last year, we had about 30, that identified as directly experiencing homelessness the night before. So that’s the question that we’re asking. Within that number of, say, 150, though, we also have data points on: ‘Over the past six months, have you experienced homelessness? Over the past nine months?’ And so, we’re able to also get some meaningful information from- maybe somebody is couchsurfing right now. So right now, they’re not identifying as experiencing homelessness. But a couple of weeks ago, that wasn’t the case.

RC: Can you talk a little about the barriers and struggles that you see in Petersburg, specifically, and in Southeast Alaska that are different from other parts of the country?

AK: First you have to talk about what’s the same. Because I think a misunderstanding in our community is oftentimes that things that are happening out in the world aren’t happening here in our community, when in fact they are. Even if it’s on a smaller scale. I think one of the biggest challenges that I see just from being in a small place is, we have a lot of people who have section eight vouchers for example.

Section Eight housing is a program that different landlords can get approved for through the state and the federal government to then have their locations be approved for Section Eight rentals. And then people who apply for the section eight voucher through the state can then get funding to help supplement their rent and that rent money goes straight to the landlords.

But with such limited section eight housing, you can have a voucher and you can have the state have determined that they can help support your rent or something like that. However, if there’s nowhere for you to go, then you’re still going to be experiencing homelessness. I’ve I’ve known participants that have waited for even a couple of years trying to get in.

For those experiencing housing insecurity, the event will have free kids and adult clothing, camping supplies and luggage, hygiene and cleaning products, a meal, and chances to connect with Petersburg organizations. The resource fair is on January 31 from 2-6 PM. It will be at the John Hanson Sr. Community Hall, at 1st and Fram Streets. The last hour is open to the general public, including giveaways.