Volunteers spread out across Charlotte for homeless head count

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A group of volunteers spent Thursday morning spread out across Charlotte in an effort to get an accurate head count of those sleeping outside in the bitter cold.

Mecklenburg County and city leaders perform a homeless count every year, and Channel 9 reporter Gina Esposito was with volunteers as they gathered before dawn at First Presbyterian Church.

From 6 a.m. until 10 a.m., those volunteers walked the streets of Charlotte to count the number of people living on county streets. They also visited soup kitchens, shelters and camps.

Volunteers handed out blankets and other items to help people stay warm.

Justin Markel, who was homeless for nearly four years, was one of more than 250 volunteers.

“There were times I wasn't at the shelter and I had to sleep outside,” Markel said.

The head count is done so the county can get a better idea of how many people are homeless in the community. Those numbers help organizations like Urban Ministries know how they can help people get off the streets and into stable housing.

Organizers said January was a tough month for the homeless because 22 nights saw temperatures dip below freezing.

"This winter has been especially brutal for our homeless, and what it’s done has shed a light on how big a problem it’s been in Mecklenburg County,” organizer Allison Winston said.

Volunteers used an app on a phone that provided questions to ask, from a person’s income to why they weren’t able to get stable housing and how long they have been homeless in Charlotte.

“It helps us get more accurate data and it also streamlines the entire process,” said Courtney Morton with the Mecklenburg Housing and Homeless Research Coordinate.

The survey is required by HUD in order for local governments to receive federal dollars.

Morton, whose job is to research the homeless issue in the county, said 15 percent of homeless live on the street, while the other 85 percent are in shelters or some other type of housing.

The survey allows local governments to provide resources, short-term and long-term subsidy housing.

Morton believes the more they can learn from the homeless, the more they can help.

“What we need to look at is that bigger inventory and look at more forms of affordable housing,” Morton said.

Leaders believe the number of homeless has risen since 2014. Last year, they counted more than 1,400 people, and that number could rise again this year, but the totals won't be released until May.

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