The woman in the car next to you in the shopping center lot may be homeless. So could that man sitting at the corner table of the fast food restaurant. Homelessness can be hard to spot, especially in a largely rural area like Portage County.
On Tuesday, the Portage County Housing Services Council will be completing a local count of homeless individuals and families using staff and volunteers.
They will count people in local shelters for the night as well as people living on the streets, in rural camps or similar spots.
Sara Jurovcik, program manager at Miller House, a shelter for homeless women and their children in Kent, said the group is finding that homelessness extends beyond city limits.
"We are finding there are more homeless in the outskirts of Portage County than people thought," she said.
"In Kent and Ravenna I think we have a pretty good idea of who we're counting. I think we're going to be surprised in the outskirts," Jurovcik said.
The count is intended to find people social services usually have the hardest time serving, she said.
"They're sleeping in their cars, in tents, underneath stairs in buildings," she said.
The count could lead to new services to benefit those hard-to-find, hard-to-serve homeless.
"Last year we had 10 people unsheltered. There were 36 people in our shelter programs," said Cathey DeBord, director of shelter services for Family & Community Services Inc.
Currently there are 15 individuals and 16 people in families in emergency shelters, she said.
This year's count is using different tactics from past years. To encourage the homeless to come in from the cold for a while, the Center of Hope in Ravenna, Kent Social Services in Kent and the Renaissance Center in Windham will be open and serving a hot meal from 8 to 10 p.m. on Tuesday. In the past, the coalition has done overnight counts.
"But that's when people aren't around as much," Jurovcik said. "The physically homeless in our area are a secretive bunch at night. They don't like to be bothered."
Staff through the local VISTA program also will be going to places where people hang out in the evenings, like 24-hour businesses.
The causes of homelessness are varied. Substance abuse, mental health issues, domestic violence and unemployment are all prime contributors. But experts and studies also point to the lack of a personal support network of friends and family. When a crisis hits, homelessness becomes the only option.
Jurovcik said she is concerned about the aging population of homeless people who have health needs.
"This time of year especially. They're more susceptible to frostbite, and need more medical care," she said.
The results of the count will assist social agencies, governments and the community at large in understanding the scope and size of local homelessness, help in developing programs and services and in applying for state and federal funding.
The Housing Services Council comprises local not-for-profit agencies, governmental entities, businesses, and faith-based organizations and is committed to eliminating homelessness and improving housing options in Portage County.
Providers who serve the homeless are encouraged to participate in the survey by calling Miller Community House for more information at 330-673-0034.
Contact this reporter at 330-298-1125 or firstname.lastname@example.org