On a late January evening, despite heavy rains and fierce winds, at least 759 people in Durham had no place to call home.

The figure was announced last week as a result of the Point-In-Time Count, an annual one-night tally of the homeless.

On Jan. 30, 2013, Durham County officials collaborated with 13 local shelters and organizations and about 50 community volunteers to count the unsheltered population—those in cars, on the streets or in the woods—as well as those staying in transitional housing and emergency shelters.

Of the 759 homeless counted that evening, 118 were children. Fifty-three were unsheltered—7 percent of the overall count, lower than the national average of 38 percent. Nearly 300 have chronic substance abuse issues, 126 struggle with severe mental illness and 100 were victims of domestic violence, according to the report by Durham’s Community Development Department.

It was challenging to locate people who weren’t staying in shelters because of the thunderstorm that night. “It’s a difficult undertaking since you don’t know where they’ll be staying,” Minnie Forte-Brown, vice chairwoman of the Durham Board of Education and member of Durham’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee, said at the press conference. “They did the absolute best they could, but it doesn’t mean we got everybody.”

Bo Glenn, chairman of the Homeless Services Advisory Committee, suspects that many of Durham’s poor are still unaccounted for. “It doesn’t count those sleeping on someone’s couch, those staying with family or friends, in an unheated garage, or in the woods so deep we can’t find them. It doesn’t count the people who are in jail, or those who have to decide between rent, heat, medicine, food.”

Though most of this year’s numbers rose slightly from last year’s total of 698 homeless, the number of “chronically homeless” dropped from 134 to 87. The number of veterans also fell from 116 to 93.

The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires communities to participate in the count in order to receive federal stimulus dollars. Durham has participated since 1999, dispatching volunteers one night per year to canvass the streets. They report the numbers to HUD, which analyzes the results and provides feedback on which programs are working and which need adjustment.

“For most people it takes just a little bit of help. A little bit can stop the downward spiral,” said Glenn.

Among local programs offering that assistance, the Rapid Re-Housing Program has helped hundreds of people move from the streets to their own apartments or houses. The program also provides ongoing support, helping families and individuals negotiate security deposits and lease agreements, evaluate their budgets and change spending habits so they are able to save money.

“We’re creating a new reality for these people,” said Melissa Hartzell, Housing for New Hope development director.

Rapid Re-Housing has seen an overwhelming 91 percent retention rate among those they’ve helped relocate in past years, says Hartzell, meaning most families have been able to stay in their homes.

Supported by local and private funding, the program is a combined effort of Housing for New Hope, Urban Ministries, Genesis Home and Interfaith Council.

While programs like Rapid Re-Housing show promising results, many continue to struggle to stay off the streets.

Asked to estimate next year’s count, city officials looked grave. “We are certainly concerned about the numbers going up,” said Glenn. “It’s going to be harder. It’s going to require efforts from all of us.”

The Legislature’s decisions to cut unemployment benefits, roll back Medicaid and increase sales taxes will further hurt the poor, Glenn says. “We cannot exist with the state legislature doing what it’s doing without the numbers going up.”

Durham’s Point-In-Time Count2012 2013
Total homeless persons698759
Chronically homeless13487
Mentally ill128126
Chronic substance abuse328292
HIV positive78
Domestic violence victims57100

What you can do
There are many organizations and programs in Durham working to assist the homeless; they always need volunteers: Genesis Homes, Housing for New Hope, Durham Housing Authority, TROSA, Urban Ministries, Durham Rescue Mission, Open Table Ministry, Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network, Healing with CAARE, North Carolina Housing Coalition.