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Last updated: Fri. Jan. 31, 2014 - 03:17 pm EDT

Homeless census delves deeper than counting heads

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Kim Robinson almost cried Thursday in the Samuel Walker Community Center at Jerusalem Baptist Church.

She was counting visitors for the annual Point-in-Time Homeless Count to help determine the number of people in the community who don’t have a home and to give them some necessities for survival.

But for Robinson, seeing the people in need reminds her of a time not long ago when she herself was homeless – an addict on the streets of Fort Wayne, wandering from place to place, trying to stay warm.

“I’ve been there,” Robinson said.

On Thursday, she was on the other side of the table, wearing a cheery pink headband and a cheery disposition as she helped about 15 people walking quietly around the community center, stuffing large plastic bags with clothes and blankets, trying on winter coats and browsing through bags of toiletries.

The center was one of two downtown locations participating in Thursday’s count.

The numbers will be released at a later date.

“It’s basically a census of the homeless,” said Sharon Gerig, director of Life House at the Rescue Mission, the other count location.

“The point is to get a snapshot of our community.”

Gerig estimated that 150 people came through the Rescue Mission between 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, looking for supplies to survive the cold weather and to simply survive.

Last year’s Point-in-Time event counted 535 homeless people in the community, 134 of whom were younger than 18.

But Gerig said the actual number of homeless people in Fort Wayne is much higher; the Rescue Mission served more than 1,200 unique individuals last year.

She said count numbers are much lower than actual numbers because the government’s definition of homeless is different from what most people consider the word to mean.

The government counts only people who have nowhere to stay and who live somewhere not intended to be a home, Gerig said, such as under a bridge or in a stairwell.

But hundreds of people who are “precariously housed,” living with friends, family or couch surfing, are not included in this number.

Volunteer Lachae White of Fort Wayne said even though only 18 people were counted as homeless during the event’s first few hours Thursday at Jerusalem Baptist, she’d seen about 50 people come through the lines.

“The most popular items are gloves and clothes and coats and blankets because it’s cold,” White said.

But even if the government isn’t counting some people as homeless, the community is, Gerig said.

This year, both locations asked all visitors to sign in to provide a better picture of Fort Wayne’s homeless or underprivileged community.

And everyone who came to the count – technically homeless or not – was treated the same.

The people the government considers homeless got special backpacks with extra survival supplies, such as raincoats and sleeping bags. But everyone had access to clothes, coats and toiletry items on the tables.

“Some people are truly homeless, and some people are truly in need,” said Lorraine Johnson of Fort Wayne, the event organizer at Jerusalem Baptist Church.

She said all those who came through the count seemed to be honest about their living situations and did not ask for more than what they needed.

Volunteers at the Rescue Mission said some of the visitors were reluctant to take more than one pair of socks or underwear and had to be encouraged to take what they needed.

“They’re so thankful,” said volunteer Jeanine Dunn of Fort Wayne. “They say, ‘I don’t want to be greedy.’

“But we say, ‘That’s what we’re here for.’ ”

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