WINCHESTER — The 2019 Point-in-Time homeless count recorded a larger number of homeless people in the area than in previous years.

This year’s count, conducted on Jan. 24 and 25 by the Western Virginia Continuum of Care (CoC), identified 146 homeless people in Winchester and Frederick County, up from 98 last year and 114 in 2017.

Of the 146 counted, 127 were living in transitional housing or shelters, including 16 children. Nineteen were unsheltered adults.

No homeless people were counted in Clarke County.

The annual count collects demographic information and determines trends regarding the homeless. The funding of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs in Virginia serving the homeless is contingent upon this data.

This year’s count included 24 beds in local motels and hotels paid for by nonprofit groups. It also includes hotel rooms paid for by Social Security.

The CoC, which covers the Shenandoah Valley between Harrisonburg and Winchester, has recorded an increase in regional homelessness over the last decade. In 2015, the count identified 71 homeless people in Winchester and Frederick County, less than half of the people counted this year.

Michael Wong, executive director of the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, said on Thursday that he thinks this year’s count may have been more accurate than previous years because of a greater focus on methodology conducted by organizers.

But the count is not reflective of the actual population of people in the area with no fixed address. For example, it’s difficult to know how many people are staying temporarily with friends or relatives or living in motels week to week.

“That’s the challenge with a point-in-time count,” Wong said. “It’s never going to be fully accurate.”

This year, count volunteers did not visit homeless camps. Instead, they went to local shelters and gathered information from nonprofit groups and government agencies, in addition to scouring parking lots for people sleeping in their cars. There also was a breakfast held for area homeless people at Centenary Church of Christ in Winchester.

A lack of affordable housing in the area is seen as a contributor to some of the homelessness.

“Most are in motels not by choice, but desperation to keep a roof over their heads,” Jennifer Hall, director of community engagement for the United Way of Northern Shenandoah Valley, said in an email. “While it’s shelter, it’s still a very unstable situation.”

Wong said the chronically unsheltered — people who are homeless because of a mental or physical disability — won’t be helped by more affordable housing because “they are never going to be able to earn the level of income to be stably housed.”

What’s needed in their case, he said, is at least partially publicly funded, permanent specialized housing, which is virtually nonexistent here. “That’s the real need in the Winchester area.”

The Valley Assistance Network, part of the United Way of NSV, served as local coordinator for the count. It was assisted by local groups like Faithworks and the Congregational Community Action Project (C-CAP).

C-CAP President Frances Salmon said in an email that she knew of more than a dozen unsheltered people who were were not included in this year’s count for various reasons.

“Some of the people who would normally be sleeping outside in tents or businesses downtown were incarcerated or checked themselves into a behavioral unit to avoid the frigid temperatures,” Salmon said. “At least seven guys were in jail.”

— Contact Onofrio Castiglia at ocastiglia@winchesterstar.com

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