An annual measurement of the homeless population on a single night in January has come and gone with no tally recorded for Dukes County.
Last year, the point-in-time count resulted in a total of 119 homeless people, the highest in recent memory.
Conducted with the help of two Islanders living with the homeless, the count spiked an increase in the Cape-wide count aggregated by the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and the Islands, raising awareness about an Island issue few seem to know much about.
But this year, Dukes County associate commissioner for the homeless Connie Teixeira did not have the same boots on the ground, she told the county commissioners two weeks ago. As a result, she had trouble locating men and women experiencing homelessness on Jan. 29.
Ms. Teixeira said she is aware of at least seven families living in substandard living conditions, including crowded situations and vehicles, and believes there to be a group of single males living out of a van.
But the homeless have not been congregating at their usual spots this winter, suggesting to her that they have either left the Island or found hidden shelter she has yet to locate.
“We just can’t figure out where they are,” Ms. Teixeira told the county commissioners at their last meeting.
While commissioners were anxious to address the growing issue on the Vineyard, they worried that the lack of an official count would reduce the Island’s chances of receiving funding from federal and local sources.
“I think we need to get numbers,” said commissioner Tristan Israel. “Whether we are going to get grants, or setting something up here, we need numbers that are based on something that is a little more than anecdotal.”
Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and its Island board member Ewell Hopkins, an Oak Bluffs resident who is also chairman of the town affordable housing committee and a trustee of the town affordable housing trust, pointed to a general need for a coordinated effort, and said last year’s count lacked adherence to the Cape procedures and independent oversight.
“Last year, the numbers presented were so out of whack from the historical numbers,” Mr. Hopkins said. “They didn’t have the legitimacy that we needed, and there have been people questioning them.” He said in the future he would like to see Island selectmen reviewing and supporting the numbers.
“To me, that is a component of the numbers count,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ms. Teixiera said she needs more help tracking people down in the future.
“If we had help, we might be able to get a count,” she told the Gazette last week.
While the point-in-time count is primarily concerned with counting those sleeping on the street or in other places not meant for sleeping like vehicles, counts are often checked against information received from other human services agencies in the community, Mr. Hopkins said.
He said the Island groups that have a handle on the true numbers, such as the hospital, the schools and Community Services, do not readily release them due to confidentiality concerns.
Mr. Hopkins said the count is complicated here because the various agencies serving the needs of that population are not as integrated on the Island like they are in other regions. “What we lack is communication amongst those different components, which is in place on the Cape,” he said.
This is the last year that Community Action will be coordinating the count. Next year, the Barnstable County Commission will oversee the aggregation of data.
Still the count has somewhat rigid definitions of who is included in the sheltered and unsheltered homeless population, which may not fit the Vineyard’s homeless population, Mr. Hopkins said.
Here, the homeless may shelter in unoccupied summer residences or in the homes of friends or neighbors.
“I don’t know if the point-in-time count will ever be the most effective tool,” he said.
County commissioner Christine Todd said she hoped to find a way to raise awareness about the issue without breaching the privacy rights of the homeless.
“I think there is a lack of knowledge in our community that this is a persistent issue,” said Christine Todd. “I get greeted with disbelief from a lot of people that I speak with about it.”