Prince William homeless services officials reported this week that a recent count of the county's homeless population yielded higher numbers than one completed in January, and said that the increase is more likely a result of better tabulation procedures rather than a significant change in homelessness over the period.
Volunteers were able to find 364 individual homeless people during a 24-hour count July 26, an effort that closely mirrored the previous count, which yielded a total of 309 people living in the county's shelters or in the streets. That's a statistical increase of nearly 18 percent, but officials cautioned that the homeless population is not growing at such an alarming rate. Rather, they said volunteers have gotten better at finding the campsites where the homeless are and gathering the data.
"It has been a trend that during the summer months, homelessness increases," said Debra Danieley, the county's director of homeless services. "But we are certainly getting better at locating and counting the homeless, and we have become much more careful about tabulating the information. We're learning where the campsites are and can reach out to more people who are unsheltered around the county."
The increase of nearly 60 homeless people likely tapped into an "uncountable" segment of the population that often moves from campsite to campsite. Members of the Prince William Area Homeless Services Network Council said such counts have limited accuracy because they take a snapshot of a 24-hour period and miss taking into account many known homeless people who could not be contacted during that time frame.
Gayle Sanders, director of the county's Homeless Prevention Center in Woodbridge, said that as the techniques improve with each count--last month's endeavor was the third such count here--the homeless population statistics will naturally rise. She said, however, that there will always be people who can't be located and who will be beyond the reach of county services.
"I know we would like to reach more people who we know are out there," Sanders said. "It's really hard to do it. You can't comb a county this size; you can't literally do that. I just think we should keep trying and keep trying."
Danieley said one compelling statistic gleaned from the recent count is the rising number of children who are homeless, now accounting for almost half of the total homeless population. Danieley said she was "shocked" to see such a high percentage of children, many of whom are part of homeless families out on the streets.
"We really need to address that issue, that so many of our homeless are children," she said.
Numbers gathered during the 24-hour period will be used primarily to meet federal Housing and Urban Development standards as well as to assess the level of services the county provides. Danieley said that the counts give a good "global picture of what we need in this area" and that they provide vital information that would otherwise go ungathered.
The numbers, however, represent only a fraction of the county's total population, which has risen to more than 270,000. Sanders said that even if there are small pockets of homelessness throughout the county, it is an issue that she thinks begs for attention.
"It doesn't matter what percentage of the county they represent," Sanders said. "If one family is outside and has nowhere to go and they are Prince William County residents, I have a problem with it."