MARTINSVILLE — It was exceptionally cold, but Laura McCoy was undeterred. After all, she had an important job today: count the homeless population in Morgan County.
Thankfully, the outreach coordinator had some help. Sitting in the passenger seat was Courtney Mathis, who also works for Wellspring, one of four homeless shelters in Morgan County. They also had gift bags — which included $10 Walmart gift cards, blankets, hand warmers, winter clothing and a flyer with information about Wellspring's services — for anyone who filled out a form.
They were tasked with visiting Brooklyn, Eminence, Martinsville and Paragon while another team was surveying Camby, Centerton, Monrovia and Mooresville.
The men of Manna Mission were unloading food and other provisions from a van when McCoy and Mathis arrived at the men's shelter Wednesday morning. Eight men filled out forms, which asked for information about their race, gender, ethnicity and time spent without stable housing.
The forms also ask for their names, but this information is not reported to the state and is only used to prevent duplicate counts, McCoy said.
She also lets them know that Wellspring allows anyone to do laundry and take a shower at its facility at 310 W. Harrison St., Martinsville.
One of them is confused by a question that asks them about their previous residences.
"How far back should I go?" he asks.
"Just in your lifetime," McCoy replies.
"Which one?" he asks.
Everyone laughs, except the dog, Speedy, a small brown Doxen with a spiked collar that has served as the unofficial guardian of the shelter at 65 W. Morgan St. for nearly a decade. She helps catch mice, and one of the men credits her with improving his mental health.
In addition to Manna Mission, Wellspring counts the population of residents at its own shelter as well as the county's two other other homeless shelters, Desert Rose and the Magdalene House.
What is a PIT count?
Every year, communities across the country spend one day conducting a Point-in-Time (PIT) count, an annual survey of people living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, safe havens or encampments.
In Morgan County, the task falls to the nonprofit Wellspring Center, which serves as the official county coordinator.
The nonprofit organization will send the results of its PIT count to the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority (IHCDA), which then submit the data to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the federal agency that oversees the count.
Collecting the data helps communities be responsive to the needs of its homeless population. It can also be useful when applying for grant funding to address housing needs.
Last year, Wellspring was awarded an Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) for street outreach, which helps fund McCoy's position, according to Bob Goodrum, the organization's executive director.
"She goes out throughout the year to the various camps, building rapport with folks and allowing them to come into our building for showers and laundry," Goodrum said.
According to the 2020 PIT count, about 120 people are experiencing homelessness in Morgan County, though the true number is likely higher, as it doesn't account for people who are couch surfing or living off the radar entirely.
The final results of the 2021 PIT count will be published by the IHCDA in February.
Out of sight
After visiting Manna Mission, McCoy and Mathis drove to the White River Ind. 39 bridge, where people often take refuge underneath the concrete overpass. There was no one there, but there are signs of life: a mattress, burned out campfires, hundreds of beer cans.
Once the sun comes out, they disperse.
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"During the day, they go somewhere to keep warm: Kroger, Walmart, gas stations, the library," McCoy says. "Some may have friends in town. Some may have jobs."
Next, they stop by a wooded area by the railroad tracks off West Douglas Street.
There's no one there, either, except a few tents and a man swinging a hatchet. He says he's here looking after a friend who lives in one of the tents.
McCoy offers him a form, but he says he's not homeless. She's skeptical, but she doesn't want to press the issue.
They drive around Eminence, Paragon and Brooklyn, but don't find visible unsheltered residents. That's because most of the area's unsheltered population tend to congregate toward town centers — especially in the colder months — where there is easier access to amenities and shelter.
"They don't want people to see them in those camps," she said.
The county's homeless problem has been exacerbated in recent years by the COVID-19 pandemic, McCoy says, which made it harder on low-income families trying to keep up with rent payments.
Wellspring has also been directly impacted by the recent eviction of more than 50 residents at the former Artesian Court apartments on South Avenue, McCoy said.
In early October, residents were given one-month notice to vacate the low-income apartment complex, which were sold to a developer and are slated to be turned into transitional housing for Recovery Works Martinsville, a future drug rehabilitation center run by Pinnacle Treatment Centers.
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Some of the families that were living in those apartments are now staying at Wellspring until they can find more stable housing, McCoy said.
Other organizations are working to address the county's housing needs. The city of Martinsville recently applied for $600,000 in state grant funding on behalf of Stability First, a faith-based nonprofit that offers transitional housing and other support services for low-income residents in Morgan County, to support a transitional housing facility for men who are recovering from drug addiction.
If you or someone you know is experiencing homelessness, there are local resources available in Morgan County.
The Desert Rose Foundation, Inc., is a faith-based non-profit organization that offers 10 apartments for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. More information can be found at desertrose.cc or call 765-342-7673 or toll free at 888-342-7673.
The Magdalene House, at 210 W. Morgan St., Martinsville, is a women’s shelter established to meet the needs of homeless women in Morgan County. For more information, visit stability-first.com or call 765-343-8030.
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Manna Mission, 65 W. Morgan St., Martinsville, was founded in 1988 and is a non-denominational church that performs extreme outreach to the local community. The mission houses Morgan County’s oldest continually running soup kitchen and can be reached at 765-318-3212.
WellSpring, 301 W. Harrison St., Martinsville, provides families encountering homelessness an opportunity to stabilize their lives by providing shelter, advocacy, support and paths to self-sufficiency. The vision is to provide a community where families have a safe and stable place to call home. More information can be found by calling at wellspringcenter.org.
Contact reporter Peter Blanchard at 765-346-2942 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @peterlblanchard.
This article originally appeared on The Reporter Times: Morgan County Point-in-Time count of homeless population