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Counting Columbia’s Homeless Population: From Veterans to Chronic Homelessness

United States Department of Health and Human Services

On one evening in late January every year, volunteers and organizations across the country set out to count the nation’s homeless population.

The project, known as the Homeless Point-In-Time Count, is run by the Department of Housing and Human Development, but the department doesn’t collect the data themselves. Instead, volunteers and organizations that serve the homeless interview people in shelters, camps and on the streets. They travel to abandoned buildings and hotels, counting sheltered and unsheltered populations. Organizations across Boone County took part in the annual count on January 25.

The results from January’s count haven’t been reported yet, but Steve Hollis, Human Services Manager for the Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, expects it to reflect recent trends.

“We’ve greatly reduced the unsheltered population,” he said. “We’re very close to achieving functional zero levels of homelessness among vets.” He attributes the decrease in veteran’s homelessness to increased funding and resources from the V.A.

In 2016, the Homeless Point-In-Time Count came in a 220 people for Boone County. The number is the highest in mid-Missouri.

Hollis said that calls to end homelessness completely are unrealistic because some choose to remain on the streets, sometimes because of behavioral health issues. “What functional zero says is that we have the capacity with shelter and housing that when someone is ready to get off the streets we have the capacity to shelter or house them,” he said.

The count is an imperfect estimate, Hollis said. The numbers of people without shelter in the winter are lower than in warmer months, and the count doesn’t reflect people who may be living with friends and relatives or staying in a hotel.

“The major challenge is that it's a directive from HUD and they only want to capture one night of a year to get a homeless count for our area for Boone County,” Scott Buis, clinical director at the veteran’s shelter Welcome Home, said. “So it's a very underreported number.” Welcome Home is a veteran’s shelter in Columbia.

Buis said the count is a way for the state and federal government to determine how to allocate funds to certain housing programs. But, Hollis said, it’s not the only way Boone County is tracking the population. Through programs like the functional zero task force, organizations in Columbia are monitoring the homeless population throughout the year, not just once in January.

Even so, the count still serves a purpose. It’s a valuable way for service providers and volunteers to engage with homeless people and connect them to the services they need.

“The causes of homelessness are almost always a lack of income and lack of affordable housing. For chronic homelessness it is also typically caused by a disabling condition, often times that’s a behavioral health issue,” Hollis said. “So, in a state like Missouri where we didn’t expand Medicaid it is extremely difficult to get access to health care for uninsured persons.”

In 2016, the homeless point in time count came in at 220 people for Boone Count. The number is the highest in mid-Missouri.