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Despite COVID-19, Homeless Street Count Proceeds — With Caution

(left to right) Carrie Dorton, Vernon Nixon and Tiny Herron-Markwell, a street outreach team from St. John Center for Homeless Men conducting a street count in Fern Creek on Jan. 27, 2021.

Tiny Herron-Markwell and her team approached a grouping of tents set up in a wooded area near a Fern Creek shopping center. 

“Anytime we come up to an encampment, we always start announcing ourselves that we're here,” she said. “When it's really cold, we like to do wellness checks.”

And it was really cold. A little after 8 a.m. on Wednesday, while the team searched for people sleeping outdoors, it started to flurry.

As the team got closer to the tents, they explained that they wanted to make sure anyone inside was OK. 

But the tents were empty.

Every January, Louisville homeless advocates and volunteers survey the county to understand approximately how many people are sleeping on the streets. COVID-19 has changed the logistics this year.

89.3 WFPL News Louisville · Despite COVID-19, Homeless Street Count Proceeds — With Caution

Herron-Markwell, an outreach worker with the St. John Center for Homeless Men and founder of volunteer group The Forgotten Louisville, said they typically do the street count in one morning before dawn. So by this hour, especially out in southeastern Louisville, their chances of finding anyone are slim. 

“There's no services at all out here,” she said. “Like there's no soup kitchens or day shelters, or overnight shelters in this part of town... These individuals might be up and out already.”

They also usually have hundreds of volunteers — about 400 volunteers in 2020

But this year, they have just over two dozen due to coronavirus precautions, Herron-Markwell said. 

That’s why they spread the count across several days with teams of professional outreach workers and veteran volunteers, each team assigned to multiple locations throughout the county. 

Despite the changes, Herron-Markwell, who has been doing this work for about 17 years, thinks they’ll get a more accurate street count this time.

These seasoned professionals and volunteers already have practice locating people who are experiencing homelessness, who might sleep in hard-to-find areas for safety reasons.

“I'm actually really excited with how we're doing it this year,” Herron-Markwell said. “When it's a normal pre-COVID street count, we're relying on volunteers. And if you're just given a map of let's say, Hurstbourne, people might not know to pull off in a shopping center and scout out the tree lines behind the shopping center.”

And the more accurate the number, the better, she said. 

The population count, which includes the street count and a survey of overnight shelters, will determine how much federal funding the city gets for homelessness services like shelters, mental and physical health care, substance use treatment and housing solutions.

Herron-Markwell believes the street count number will be higher this year — in part because of the expertise of those conducting it, but also because of COVID. 

She said she and the team met a senior couple a few weeks back who “had worked their entire lives.”

“But they fell behind in their rent and got evicted in November, and they're sleeping in their car,” she said. “So we’re starting to hear those stories. It's just heartbreaking.” 

Certified peer support specialist Carrie Dorton was part of this count team. She’s been doing this work for about two years and loves her job.

“I have lived experience myself, being homeless before,” Dorton said. “I'm in recovery. So part of my role is just to try to give people hope.”

Dorton said she experienced homeless in 2007.

“I was just on the streets. I had nowhere to go. I had burned a lot of bridges with my family because of my addiction. So I would sleep on people's porches or in cars,” she said.

So while the count is important, she said it’s even more critical to build relationships with the individuals they meet. 

At a different site in Fern Creek, Dorton gave a backpack full of supplies — a face mask, blanket and socks — to a woman. That woman took the street count survey, and Dorton said she was able to get sufficient information, which will make it easier to keep her engaged with services.

Vernon Nixon, also an outreach worker at St. John Center for Homeless Men, has been on the job just six months. He thinks the count is important because it also illustrates how many people in the area are struggling and need help. 

That’s why he’s hoping this year’s methods will help them “capture more individuals… and in areas nobody else is going to cover.”

Dr. Susan Buchino, an assistant professor at University of Louisville’s Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, helped conduct the count surveys back at St. John Center for Homeless Men.

She said there have been challenges to this year’s several-day street count, including striving to make sure they aren’t counting the same person more than once. But she said there might be some advantages to not conducting the count in the wee hours of the morning.

“Finding people from 4 to 6 a.m. and waking them up, it's just it feels uncomfortable because you're waking someone up in their home,” Buchino said.

She’s interested to see if finding people when they might already be awake will make them more open to answering the survey questions.

Organizers expect to finish the street count this week.

Stephanie Wolf is LPM's Arts & Culture Reporter. Email Stephanie at swolf@lpm.org.