Advocates get creative to obtain accurate count of homeless in Arkansas

The coronavirus pandemic limited the mostly volunteer effort in many places, but Garland County advocates pushed ahead.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The annual effort to find and count homeless people in Arkansas is taking a hit this year, with shelters limited and many volunteers sidelined by the pandemic.

The coalition of advocacy groups in Garland County decided to press ahead however, by getting creative and taking advantage of technology and taking some extra time.

“This year we’re up against a huge battle and that’s the COVID issues,” said Stephen Ezelle, the president of the Southwest Arkansas Partnership. “We’re now doing something really super different, and that is we’re finally looking at a two-day count versus a one-day count, which is a snap shot.”

The effort, as envisioned by the federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development calls for volunteers counting heads in shelters and checking known encampments to tally the people without permanent shelter. The counts help influence where government aid goes.

This year’s Point In Time count is making allowances to take more time to get accurate numbers, giving the lens a longer exposure.

The plan by SWAP started with fliers put in the free snack packs and meals given out daily by the Jackson House, literally putting the word on the street. It urged people to make a quick stop at a downtown event space to get a COVID test, get food, supplies, camping gear, warm clothes, and even a shower. Volunteers tallied up the number of people who took up the offer.

“They’re also providing a flu shot. And we’re getting quite a few homeless that really want that shot,” said Ezelle of the shots offered by non-profit provider Healthy Connections.

A mobile app built for the nationwide count provides an easy way for field volunteers to send in tallies from camps, while also logging GPS coordinates. The tracking system has uncovered some concerning trends over the years, mainly that the number of homeless seems to be increasing, but advocates are hoping that by overcoming this year’s challenges, they may start to turn that tide.

“I’ve been in this business for seven years,” said Ezelle. “It has risen over the years. And hopefully, we can fix that.”

Day two of the event is Jan. 29th at the Warehouse Event Space at 301 Broadway St., Hot Springs, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.