‘Where did you sleep?’: Volunteers counting Carter County’s homeless

Published 5:31 pm Tuesday, January 23, 2024

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By Buzz Trexler

Star Correspondent

 “Where did you sleep Tuesday night, Jan. 23?”

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 That’s the basic question being asked by volunteers helping with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual Point-in-Time Count over the next week in Carter County and across the nation. But in rural counties like Carter, counting the homeless population can be especially difficult and perhaps lead to undercounting the number of people who are homeless.

 “Obviously, bigger cities that have homeless people living in alleys and such, it’s real easy to do. But a county like Carter County, Elizabethton, they’re not in town,” said Terry Burdett, of The Appalachian Regional Coalition on Homelessness (ARCH). “They’re sleeping in tents out in the woods, they’re sleeping in abandoned buildings, they’re sleeping in your little storage unit, and they might be in cars. They’re scattered all around. They’re not in one location.

 “To get a good count, you have to have people in the community that can bring you to them and it’s really difficult,” Burdett said.

 ARCH is HUD’s Continuum of Care program coordinator for eight northeast Tennessee counties, including Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi, and Washington. The Point-in-Time Count provides important data when it comes to HUD grants and other assistance in the eight-county region.

 The count, conducted every year on a night in January, begins at sundown today. In the next seven days, volunteers will be out trying to survey those who are experiencing homelessness to determine the number of sheltered and unsheltered people in a particular area.

 In December, HUD released its nationwide homeless assessment report showing more than 650,000 people were experiencing homelessness on Jan. 26, 2023, a 12 percent increase. The release said the rise in homelessness continued a pre-pandemic trend from 2016 to 2020 when homelessness also increased.

 In ARCH’s region, the homeless count in 2023 was 572: Carter, 13; Greene, 26; Hancock, 0; Hawkins, 11, Johnson, 19; Sullivan, 225; Unicoi, 10; and Washington, 268.

 In 2022, the region’s homeless count was 392: Carter, 17; Greene, 16; Hancock, 0; Hawkins, 1; Johnson, 21; Sullivan, 192; Unicoi, 3; and Washington, 142.

 Burdett said Monday different people lead the surveying in each of those counties. “Rural homelessness is always difficult because you really need to have people in the community that know the individuals,” he said. In larger cities, such as Knoxville, people who work with the homeless population know where they congregate, and volunteers can simply go and do a head count the night of Point-in-Time and then do the surveys later. The lead people for Carter County are Stacey Kastens, assistant professor of social work and program director at Milligan University and Dr. Joy Drinnon, professor of psychology and director of undergraduate research at Milligan.

 “We are working more directly with the existing organizations in Carter County to help us with the count,” Kastens said Tuesday. Those organizations include the Carter County and Elizabethton school systems, Loaves and Fishes, the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library, Love Thy Neighbor, Carter Compassion Center, the Neighborhood Services Centers, TLC, and area churches.

 “Because Carter County has no shelters specifically for those who are experiencing homelessness, we will be seeking to find those who regularly sleep ‘on the streets,’” said Kastens, and while she and Drinnon are the primary volunteers, there “may be a student or two that we’re going to drag along.”



 Kastens said the work of counting has already begun with contacts at the various organizations.

 “We went out yesterday to one of the warming centers that’s been set up and we talked to the staff there and they kind of helped us and directed us to some people that we might talk to,” she said. “And then we have been in contact with the school system and they’ve got copies of the survey that they can fill out for kids in the district that are homeless.” Surveys have also been given to the public library, “so the staff there is kind of helping us to keep up with people that might show up at the library that they could complete surveys on.

 “The number of surveys completed (i.e., the number of those who are homeless) are compiled and the results submitted to HUD,” Kastens said. “The information is considered in determining services and funding needed in areas throughout the United States.”

 Information is gathered using an ARCH survey that records demographic and other information, such as whether the person is a veteran, how long they have been homeless, and whether they have a chronic health condition or substance abuse disorder. Answering the survey is voluntary.

HUD’s primary definition of homeless, according to its website, is an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence, which means the person:

— has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not meant for human habitation;

— is living in a publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements (including congregate shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charitable organizations or by federal, state and local government programs); or

— is exiting an institution where (s)he has resided for 90 days or less and who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation immediately before entering that institution.

Burdett said in an email the latter clause does not apply with respect to the Point-in-Time Count.