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AZ 2010 Homeless Count: A Sad but Significant Tally

January 26, 2010

PHOENIX - Some 400 volunteers will be out on the streets tonight, attempting to count the number of homeless people in central Arizona. Last year's one-night count by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) found a 20 percent increase in the homeless population, and MAG human services planner Brande Mead says a further increase is expected this year, because of the state's continuing bad economy.

"We are seeing about 30 percent of people in shelters for the first time, meaning they've never experienced homelessness before. The main reasons for their homelessness are loss of a job and just not having income."

Last year's tally counted just under 3,000 homeless Arizonans around metro Phoenix, in addition to those in shelters.

Mead says the homeless count can sometimes take an emotional toll on the volunteers. Last year, one family was found living in a wash alongside a baby's crib.

"That's one of the hardest things to do during the count, is to come across families and youth like that, that are sleeping in places that really are not meant for human habitation."

Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says the one-night count is a valuable resource, but it won't reflect a growing category of homeless people, those staying with relatives or friends temporarily, because of foreclosures and job losses.

"Right now, the indicators are much more episodic; the homeless people are going to be homeless for a month, and then they're not homeless; homeless for a month, not homeless. So, to take a snapshot on one day is not going to count the true impact of what's happening."

The annual homeless counts have been criticized for being unscientific and even political, but Donovan says they give social service groups an opportunity to find out more about the populations they serve.

The count is used by the federal government to develop housing policies and allocate money for service providers to the homeless.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ