Homeless count draws critics

For the past several years The Community Shelter Board has tried to find out just how many people in Columbus don’t have a place to call home. Thursday morning about 100 volunteers braved the cold winds to try to get an accurate count. But the census faces criticism from local advocates.

According to The Community Shelter Board’s most recent numbers, there were about 1,400 people without homes in Columbus – 200 of them actually living on the street or on the land.

Barbara Poppe, executive director of The Community Shelter Board, said volunteers went to known homeless camps and shelters to take the count. The count began at 4 in the morning and lasted until 7 a.m. Later volunteers went to soup kitchens. While Poppe did not say if she thinks overall homelessness is on the rise, she said she sees a trend among some groups.

“We have been very concerned over the last year about a growth in the number of families with children who are experiencing homelessness. We saw about an eight percent increase this year compared to last year. We also saw an increase in single adult women,” Poppe said.

But the count has its critics. They say the volunteers miss people. Kent Beittel is director of the Open Shelter a food pantry that offers other services for the homeless and needy in downtown Columbus. Beittel disagrees with the way the count is conducted and the motivation behind it.

“The function of the count is in my opinion to meet the requirements of a grant, not to capture the reality of personal and social suffering that exists in our community,” Beittel said.

Beittel said holding a head count during the wee hours of the morning will generate inaccurate numbers because many homeless people, especially those living on the land, try to be as undetectable as possible.

“We have tried for several years to get the time changed so that it’s possible to get a better count. And so the count itself demonstrating some sort of respect for people who are homeless. We have not been successful,” Beittel said.

But Poppe defended their method.

“We believe the count is the best job that we can do with the resources we have available. As with any census there is always the possibility that someone has been missed,” Poppe said.

Vickie Darst is homeless. She lives along a bike trail that runs along the Scioto River, and has been there for two years. The camp used to have about 13 people living in it last spring, but now there’s only a handful. Darst said she didn’t see any visitors to her camp from the shelter board.

“A camper came back that had been gone for about a month looking for his tent, but that’s about it. No, no one was there in the wee hours of the morning, we were there,” Darst said.

But, again, Poppe said people will be missed. And she said it will be a while before this count’s numbers are released.