Next Tuesday Jan. 28, volunteers across the state will attempt to count the number of homeless living in South Dakota. Locally, Clay County officials will be working together to help create an accurate look at poverty and homelessness here in one 24-hour period.

“This data will be compiled, submitted to HUD, and compared to prior year counts for South Dakota, said Darcie Bultje, an official with the Rural Office of Community Services who is coordinating the homeless count effort in 19 SD counties, including Clay. “In addition, the count data will help gauge the effectiveness of current services. With the count being one 24-hour period each year, the count is not complete data, but is used in conjunction with other data resources to find areas of improvement as it may pertain to specific populations and/or locations.”

In Clay County, Bultje is relying upon law enforcement officials, those with governmental and charitable organizations, and volunteers to find and count the homeless.

“Finding people who are homeless is a little more challenging in the Midwest as the count is conducted in January,” says Bultje. “Due to our weather, it is difficult to find people living outdoors, however, we ask that the volunteers from DSS, Law Enforcement and service providers check known areas for squatters or abandoned buildings. We also rely on our service providers to identify and survey anyone who they have sheltered in a hotel/motel on that night and count them.”

For the purposes of this count, a homeless person is defined as a person who is staying in an emergency shelter, enrolled in a transitional housing program dedicated to homeless individuals and families, or one who is staying in a motel or hotel that is being paid for by a governmental or charitable entity. Those individuals or families paying for the hotel themselves, even though they may not have any other place to stay, are not counted as homeless for the purposes of this survey.

Many volunteers across the county will be working together to make sure this year’s count is as accurate as possible. In the 19 counties that Bultje is responsible for, some 200 volunteers, in addition to agencies and officials, will be assisting with actively seeking homeless on Tuesday.

“Again, it’s hard to determine the total number of volunteers that will be helping out,” she said. “There are many people who are aware the count is happening and will be actively seeking homeless individuals on this day.”

Data from this count will be compiled and submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The data will be compared to prior years and will help refine homeless services.

“The count data will help gauge the effectiveness of current services,” explains Bultje. “With the count being one 24 hour period each year, the count is not complete data but is used in conjunction with other data resources to find areas of improvement as it may pertain to specific populations and/or locations.”

For example, if the data finds that people are sleeping on the street and emergency and transitional housing is fully occupied, the need for additional emergency housing may be noted. However, if emergency shelter is not full, but people are found to be on the street, officials will look at the reasons why the emergency housing is not being utilized. Other important questions that may arise include: Are emergency shelters located in the right communities? If homeless are experiencing homelessness for the first time, are there additional prevention type of activities that can be incorporated? Is there an increase in number of homeless youth?

Reasons for homelessness in South Dakota vary, of course, but Bultje says many times it results from a domino effect.

“Often, you hear of the individual or family struggling financially, which gets them evicted from their housing, and once evicted, it has a negative impact on your rental history and credit which makes it more difficult to find appropriate housing in the future,” says Bultje. “Other influences of homelessness are domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse.”

Clay County residents can assist with next Tuesday’s count by notifying local officials if they know where any homeless people are staying.

“Awareness is key to helping us identify those experiencing homelessness,” says Bultje. “The more people that know, the more likely we are to find them and to get them the assistance they need to take the next step.”

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