The homeless population in Summit County is a growing concern for local organizations working to address the issue.
As part of the national 100,000 Homes campaign, Summit County conducted a Vulnerability Index homeless survey in two phases — January 2013 and August to September 2013 — to capture seasonal population differences.
The Family and Intercultural Resource Center, along with a variety of nonprofit, religious-based and local government partners, recently released the results of the 63 total surveys collected from homeless people in the county.
Robert Murphy, FIRC community support manager, said gathering results over a period of time was important in a seasonal, transient community such as Summit County.
“Going out on one day, that approach doesn’t work well for an area like this,” he said. “But the questions are geared more towards homelessness trends in more urban areas, so we have to make some adjustments.”
More than half of the people surveyed are chronically homeless, meaning they have experienced homelessness for a year or more, or have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years, and have a disabling mental, physical or substance-abuse problem.
There is no designated homeless shelter in Summit County, Murphy said, and the local transitional housing task force is working to use the survey data to help improve conditions for the homeless population. Murphy said while 63 might not seem like a large number of homeless people, he believes there are many more the survey did not reach.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We know we didn’t come close to identifying and communicating with everyone who was homeless during that time, or during the whole year.”
A majority of the respondents — 48 people, or 86 percent — reported suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, or both. Of those, 14 people reported a mental health issue, 19 reported substance abuse and 15 reported both.
Murphy said because Summit County is not an urban area, some of the survey questions yielded unlikely results. For example, the possible responses to a question about where an individual most frequently slept were in a vehicle, on the streets or in a shelter. But 34 percent of the homeless in Summit checked the “other” category, answering a hotel, couch surfing or camping.
“The population is increasing and the problem is getting worse,” Murphy said. “Looking at this data, we’re trying to come up with a good plan to help these folks. It’s important to make sure we can protect folks from having to sleep out in the cold.”
As far as employment and income were concerned, the survey results showed that about half had some “on the books” work income, and about half receive food stamps.
Health and safety were other issues of concern, with 46 percent reporting a serious physical health issue, including asthma, a heart condition, diabetes, cancer or emphysema. About 66 percent reported being attacked since becoming homeless, and 21 percent have experienced frostbite.
The majority of the 63 respondents were men, whose ages ranged from 26 to 54. A number indicated they had completed some college, and more than one-third reported they had lived in Summit County prior to becoming homeless.
“There are different solutions for different groups,” Murphy said. “One piece can be short-term emergency needs not being met by any county service, but we need to look at permanent solutions, transitional housing programs and approaches in different communities to see how we get past those short-term needs.”