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Volunteers to use app in upcoming count of homeless people in Spokane

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 17, 2018

Spokane is revamping its annual count of homeless people to gather more data to find gaps in services.

A dozen volunteers for the annual homeless count, which will take place Jan. 25, gathered Tuesday at the Northeast Community Center to learn how to enter data into a smartphone app the city is using for the first time this year.

The app, called Counting Us, was developed specifically for cities counting homeless people. It allows volunteers to submit a new report for each individual or household they talk to, add a location pin and record answers to a series of questions.

Some of the information is demographics, like gender, race and age. But volunteers also will ask for more qualitative details about each person or group’s situation. What led them to homelessness? Do they have chronic medical conditions or mental illnesses? Are they veterans?

“The richness of the data is what we’re after,” said Tija Danzig, the city’s homeless services program manager. Spokane is calling this year’s count “Everybody Counts” to emphasize the focus on reaching more people.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires cities to count homeless people in late January every year in order to receive federal grant funding for housing and other services. But this year’s point-in-time count, as the effort is known, is expanded significantly beyond what the federal government requires.

Nearly 100 people have volunteered to canvass Spokane County next week. That’s a huge uptick from the regular group of about 20 people. In addition to the app, they’ll be equipped with donations, including boots, personal hygiene products and winter clothing, which the city has been collecting since Dec. 1 at a number of public buildings and businesses.

Volunteers will be as far north as Deer Park and Mead, with a presence in just about every city in the county. That’s likely to lead to a much higher count than in past years.

In 2017, the city counted 1,090 homeless people. The bulk of them, 87 percent, were spending the night in a shelter or transitional housing.

The number of homeless people in the city doesn’t directly lead to more money from federal or other grants, but it could make city applications more competitive, said Dave Lewis, who leads the city’s data-gathering efforts on homeless people.

In past years, Spokane has asked people to give names, birthdates and sometimes Social Security numbers to make sure they’re not double-counting people. Lewis said past years have shown it’s incredibly rare for the same person to be interviewed twice.

Because of that, the count is ditching personally identifiable information entirely. Volunteers will start interviews by asking if the person has already been interviewed, then continue if they say no.

That’s a change longtime volunteer Bob Peeler is looking forward to. Peeler has been on the homeless outreach team for Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners for 37 years and has done the count every year since it started in 2006.

Since he knows many of the city’s homeless people, he’s often been able to coax people into sharing that information so they can be counted. But often, people don’t want to give their name and birthdate to a stranger, he said.

He hopes the new format will encourage people to be more forthcoming.

“My goal is to find out where the gaps are and how as a community we can fill it,” he said.

Danzig said any questions people don’t want to answer can be left blank. That includes tagging a location if people are camping illegally or otherwise don’t want the place they’re sleeping to be included.

Those who do agree to share a location will be mapped so the city can have a visual representation of where in Spokane people without permanent shelter are spending the night.

While the federal definition of homelessness doesn’t count people who are “doubled up” and sharing apartments, the city plans to include them this year. Those people will be filtered out of the data given to federal officials but can be used to drive city policy.

“We don’t have to turn anybody away from sharing their story,” Lewis said.

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