On Thursday, Jan. 23, Linda Mills and other volunteers with the Hays Homeless Coalition conducted the annual Point-in-Time survey in Ellis County. This is a survey to determine the number of homeless individuals in communities across the nation on the same night.
This year that night was Wednesday, Jan. 22. The count is facilitated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The HUD survey defines a homeless person as one who spent the night in question in one of the following locations because the person had nowhere else to go: in a vehicle, on the street, under a bridge, in an abandoned building, in a public building, camping out, in some type of shelter, in a motel the person did not pay for, in a halfway house, with family or friends, in a corrections facility of some type, or in a medical, psychiatric, or substance abuse treatment facility.
Mills said of the 14 surveys filled out this year, six individuals met the government’s criteria for homelessness.
Five were men. All six were 25 years of age or older. All six said they had been homeless more than once in the last three years, which meets the government’s definition of “chronic homelessness.”
The surveys were conducted at the Hays Public Library, 1205 Main; Kansas Works, the state employment agency at Eighth and Allen; First Call for Help of Ellis County, 206 E. 13th; and Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Shelter.
Mills said these places were chosen because they are facilities where homeless individuals are known to congregate. For example, the Hays Public Library is open to the public until 8 on most weeknights, it’s heated in the winter, it offers computer and Internet access, and most nights the library staff keeps hot coffee going for patrons. It is also a place in Hays where homeless people can come and feel safe—and not be noticed, Mills said.
“Not all homeless people are living behind dumpsters,” she added.
One of the six homeless individuals in this year’s count reported being treated for alcohol abuse, one for drug abuse, one for mental illness, two reported having physical disabilities, and two reported experiencing traumatic brain injuries. One individual reported being a single parent with at least one child, but it was unclear whether that child was living with the individual, Mills said.
“In the past, we had people who were sleeping in doorways, but no one reported doing that this year,” Mills said. “Most of the ones we counted as homeless (this year) live with family or friends that they do not pay to stay with.”
The survey has been done annually in Ellis County since 2013. In 2019, by comparison, 72 surveys were filled out, with 14 individuals meeting HUD’s definition of homelessness. Twenty-four individuals met the definition of “chronic homelessness,” even though they may not have been homeless at the time the survey was conducted in January 2019.
Mills felt this year’s Point-in-Time count was hampered by the fact there were fewer volunteers administering the surveys. She said she does not believe the fewer number of homeless counted this year reflects an improving situation in Ellis County.
“I don’t think you can say the situation is improving because it only looks at one night.”
Mills also serves as executive director of First Call for Help, an agency that provides rent and utilities assistance for those in need. Last year First Call had two to three people a week—a total of 75 throughout the year--coming in and asking for help to try and find a place to live, she said. “And these are people who already live in Hays; they are not passing through.”
There is no homeless shelter in Ellis County, other than the domestic abuse shelter. The nearest general homeless shelter is in Great Bend. But there is no public transportation between Hays and Great Bend. That means if a homeless person desires to go to a shelter, First Call will normally purchase a bus ticket for the person to go to one of the homeless shelters in Salina, Mills said.
The Salina Rescue Mission houses men. Ashby House is the facility that houses women, children and families.
But homeless individuals in Ellis County who have jobs don’t want to go to Salina, she said. “They don’t want to lose their jobs. These are the people who are sleeping on family members’ couches.”
How can people who are working not have a place of their own to live?
They may not be using money wisely, Mills said. Or, they may have past debts they are paying off. Many working individuals simply are not making enough money to put together a deposit, which usually includes first and last month’s rents, she added.
The HUD survey is voluntary and does not ask for names. It has additional questions regarding race and military experience. After the survey is conducted each year, Mills enters the results into a database. The Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition then tabulates the results from across the state and reports them to HUD. Individuals can access the state database at www.kshomeless.com.
Mills encouraged those who want to learn more about ways to help the homeless to attend the Hays Homeless Coalition meetings, adding the group can always use more volunteers. The organization meets every other month at noon on the third Wednesday. The group’s next meeting will be March 18 in the first floor conference room of the Hadley Center, 205 E. Seventh.
Mills acknowledged the group needs to expand the number of places it conducts the Point-in-Time surveys in the future. “There have to be other places that we are not reaching,” she said.