This Is What It Looks Like to Try to Count America’s Homeless Population

Ms. Maharrey said jobs in Delta are scarce, government services are limited and nonprofit infrastructure is thin. The burden of helping the desperate rests largely with the church, neighbors and community groups.

Counting times is based on these local ranks and their network of sources – court clerks, gas station attendants, motel owners, police officers, longtime contacts in the homeless community itself. On cold nights, shelter-seekers seek shelter wherever they can, in cars, abandoned homes, and empty malls. The only way to really know who is where is to live in these communities and know the people firsthand.

Ms. Maharrey says the fact that rural homeless are hard to spot is what makes the annual census so important. “When I talk to other communities, they find it hard to believe that there is homelessness in rural Mississippi, or that there is homelessness in rural America,” she said. “The number of points in time gives us a point of reference.”

In Greenwood, Miss., population about 14,000, the group drove into a wooded area where Donjua Parris, 43, has been living with her partner since the summer. Four years ago, she said, her partner lost a maintenance job at the apartment building where they lived, and when they were evicted from the house, her family didn’t take them in. Miss Lukes went through the census questionnaires with Miss Parris, who shivered from the cold, then he asked her where they should go to find the others.

“There is a place,” she said, pointing to a riverside section of a nearby levee, where she said a pregnant woman was living. “She needs help.”

Minutes later, Mr. Lukes climbed down the dike and found an abandoned campsite. If the woman was there, she’s gone by now.

Rockford, Illinois.


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