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January - Time to Count Homeless

PHOTO: The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless will hold its annual vigil February 13th, following this month's point in time homeless count. Photo courtesy LICH
PHOTO: The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless will hold its annual vigil February 13th, following this month's point in time homeless count. Photo courtesy LICH
January 10, 2013

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. - Later this month, about 100 volunteers will fan out across Nassau and Suffolk counties for a "point in time" count of the number of homeless people not living in shelters or doubling up in relatives' or friends' houses. Volunteer enumerators will visit libraries, laundromats and train stations during the day, and known hangouts for the homeless at night.

It's an annual effort, replicated across the country, aimed at better helping private and public agencies address an issue that is easily overlooked, according to Greta Guarton of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless.

"We live in a very beautiful area, a very affluent area, and we tend to forget that there's pockets of true poverty here. There's so many people who are homeless, and so many more who are one pay check away from homelessness."

A report commissioned by Suffolk County recently found 20 percent of the county's population is poor, with many more working poor and so-called "near poor." It called for an increase in county support for these vulnerable populations.

Richard Koubek chaired the Welfare to Work Commission's report, "Struggling in Suburbia: Meeting the Challenges of Poverty in Suffolk County." He says homelessness hangs over the heads of many Long Islanders.

"They're right on the cusp of homelessness. These are the people, who, suddenly, when one disaster strikes, they have to make what we call in the report 'Sophie's Choices' every month: 'Do we feed the kids or do we pay the rent? We can't do both.'"

Greta Guarton says the homeless count involves more than just identifying the number of unsheltered people.

"We don't just speak to them and find out, 'Oh, you're living in the tent in those woods over there. Well, thank you, nice talking to you, good luck to you, bye.' We make every attempt to see if there is a way that we can address those needs immediately."

Guarton says when this year's numbers are reported to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, special note will be made of the impact of Hurricane Sandy last fall.

"I suspect this year on Long Island, although we have made very positive strides in many areas, we were hit by Sandy and there's more homeless people just because of Sandy than there were."

The 'point in time count' is scheduled for Jan. 23.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY