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Jackson County, ACCESS Inc. homeless count gets under way tonight

A one-night count of Jackson County's homeless population tonight will provide data for state-funded assistance programs.

The Jackson County Homeless Task Force works with ACCESS Inc. to conduct the count near the end of January each year.

While much of the data will be collected through service providers and shelters throughout the week, the one-night street count helps to fill in gaps in the count, said Linda Reid, chairwoman of the Jackson County Homeless Task Force.

Officials with ACCESS, an organization that provides food, housing and other resources to low-income families in the county, say that agencies are making an effort to count people in more unique homeless situations, from those living in travel trailers, to people who spend some nights in low-cost hotels.

The Department of Human Services and local shelters are often aware of people staying with friends or couch-surfing, and local veterans groups are providing information on homeless veterans.

A handful of volunteers throughout the county will ask potentially homeless people in the area if they have been continually homeless for a year or more, or if they have experienced four or more instances of homelessness in the past three years.

Reid, who has helped with the street count in the past, says the homeless have varied reactions to the volunteers.

"We do try to explain the importance of getting this information," Reid said. "We need to know what the population's needs are."

Reid says that nationally, economic circumstances have caused a shift in the types of people facing homelessness.

"In the last couple of years since the recession, there have been more families with children finding themselves homeless," she said.

Reid said she believes that families hit hard during the recession previously were able to lean on friends and relatives who provided an informal safety net. Now that a couple of years have passed, those resources have run out, leading to a surge in homeless families.

Statistics from last year's count showed a 15 percent increase in homeless people compared with the previous year, something Reid attributes partly to more volunteers helping to track the homeless population.

"We're getting better at counting," Reid said. "More people are joining the effort."

The information from the surveys, which includes population numbers and reasons for homelessness, are compiled into a database and turned over to the state.

The statistics will help policy makers decide which areas of the state have the greatest need for homeless assistance funding and programs.

Teresa Ristow is a reporting intern for the Mail Tribune.