Annual tally of the homeless can have an impact on lives

The cold. Being wet. It’s miserable.

Aaron Grubbs isn’t homeless, but he has been. He hasn’t forgotten the worst of it.

“When you’re cold and wet, it takes so long to get warm,” said Grubbs, 49, who spent about six months living on the streets several years ago.

Grubbs was back outside in 40-degree weather Thursday — but with an important task. A volunteer with the Salvation Army in Everett, Grubbs was among dozens of survey takers participating in Snohomish County’s annual Point in Time homeless count.

A state and federal requirement, the tally helps the county assess needs and get a proportionate share of funding to counter homelessness.

The Salvation Army was the hub of the effort in Everett. Volunteer counters, human services officials and county workers also fanned out from sites in eastern, north and south Snohomish County to find homeless people and ask about their situations.

In 2011, the Point in Time count found 2,249 people without permanent places to stay. That was down 113 from the 2010 total of 2,362.

A preliminary count for 2012 may be available as soon as Friday, said Nate Marti, a human services specialist with the county’s Office of Housing and Community Development. Official figures should be ready by late February.

Walking the streets and alleys of downtown Everett with Salvation Army worker Rebecca Lewis, Grubbs pointed out spots where he knows homeless people stay.

Through his work running a donated clothing room at the Salvation Army and helping at the charity’s dinners, Grubbs knows many homeless people by name. He approached them politely, explaining the goal and asking basic questions.

The survey seeks information about needs, from food to short-term places to stay. More than one person questioned by Grubbs said they could use bus tickets.

Also on the survey is a list labeled “Causes of your household’s homelessness,” with some possible answers being job loss, drug or alcohol use, victim of domestic violence, aged out of foster care or youth residential program, and discharged from an institution or jail.

Roy W. Jones, approached by Grubbs on Broadway, said it was going to jail that caused him to be homeless. “I lost my house while I was in jail,” said Jones, 42, adding that he now spends nights at the Everett Gospel Mission Men’s Shelter and days at the Everett Public Library, in churches or walking the streets.

Wes Randall, 53, told Grubbs he had a temporary place to stay, and that a back injury kept him from working. A 68-year-old man who identified himself only as Robert said he’d been homeless “by choice,” and that he didn’t like rules imposed by shelters. He said that in the 1960s he served in the Marine Corps. Among Robert’s possessions was a book titled “Comparative Economic Systems.”

The survey doesn’t identify people by name. And everyone surveyed isn’t a single person living on the street or in a shelter.

In north Snohomish County, homelessness is “not something you see on street corners,” said Nate Greenland, a regional manager with Housing Hope. The nonprofit agency works to provide affordable housing.

The north county Point in Time count was based at the Smokey Point office of the state Department of Social and Health Services, Greenland said. In smaller communities, he said, homeless families often stay with other people. “They may have shelter tonight, but they could get kicked out. It is homelessness,” he said.

Jeanita Nelson, volunteer services manager with Catholic Community Services in Snohomish County, said she spoke with a caller recently who asked why the Point in Time count is done year after year. She said he asked, “What’s the point?”

“The point is, maybe you don’t see a difference, but it makes a huge impact. We see it,” Nelson said. The count figures into a report that helps Snohomish County acquire community development block grant dollars to serve not just the homeless, but people at risk of becoming homeless. “It helps us get resources to help those people,” she said.

Nelson said she has seen families at Catholic Community Services, “you just know they’re probably going to sleep in a car somewhere.”

Seeing the children hurts most, Nelson said.

“It’s heartbreaking when you realize that in this country we have people who don’t have a roof over their heads. It’s a real eye-opener,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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