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They count homeless people in Maricopa County each year. The numbers keep climbing

It’s 6 a.m. and rain is coming down hard as teams from the city of Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions split up to search for unsheltered people. It’s difficult to see on this dark, wet morning, but Annette Medina is keeping an eye out from the passenger window of a city car.

“A lot of the places we’re looking at are any little coves or bus stops, things like that,” Medina says.

When the team does spot people experiencing homelessness, it’s hard to convince them to stand in the rain to talk.

Stefanie Greenlief, a homeless liaison for the city, hops out from the driver’s seat to check a tent pitched near a vacant lot on Camelback Road, but the person inside won’t answer questions.

“It looked like that person had just used drugs,” Greenlief says.

The car stops at a city park where some tents are pitched and at storefronts where people are taking shelter from the rain. When people won’t talk, the outreach workers note their observations in a smartphone app — a man appearing to be in his 50s sleeping at a bus stop, a pair of young women standing on a side street in an area known for sex trafficking.

Counts are complicated, and critical

Then, the team pulls up to a taco shop where nine people and two dogs are huddled in the doorway. The awning is dripping. There are big puddles forming in the parking lot. One man has tried to squeeze into a shopping cart to sleep. An older woman tries to cover her legs with a small blanket.

“I’m with the city, y’all aren’t in trouble or anything like that,” Greenlief calls out. “We’re out doing a survey this morning for folks out on the streets.”

A few people agree to participate. The older woman with the blanket tells Greenlief she’s been on the streets for three years. She says she has struggled with mental health and has cancer. The outreach team provides lists of resources to her and the others, and encourages them to seek support.

These Point-In-Time homelessness counts each January are required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most cities nationwide participate in order to be eligible for federal funding to address homelessness. In the Phoenix area, the counts have revealed a dramatic increase in homelessness over the past decade. As a result, the counts have become more complicated, and also more critical.

“The logistics are challenging. We’re talking about nearly 10,000 people in the space of six hours,” said Brian Gruters, a human services planner with the Maricopa Association of Governments.

MAG coordinates with cities and nonprofit partners across the county to compile the data collected during the annual Point-In-Time counts. Gruters said the challenge is not only that the homeless population is larger each year, but the land area organizers must cover is massive.

“Having a dispersed effort is really critical,” Gruters said. “That means pulling in every community.”

Hoping for more survey answers

This year, 24 Maricopa County municipalities organized teams to conduct the one-day count on Jan. 23. In Phoenix, about 300 volunteers joined workers from the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions and other city departments to search the streets for unsheltered people. Organizers of the count will also collect occupancy records from homeless services to tally the number of sheltered homeless individuals in the county.

The final report will be released in spring. It will almost certainly reflect continued growth among the region’s homeless population. Last year’s count showed 9,642 people experiencing homelessness — a record. But, the majority of growth last year was among the sheltered homeless population, reflecting efforts from the county, the City of Phoenix and other municipalities to expand shelter capacity.

Point-In-Time final reports also include demographic information about people counted, such as age, race or ethnicity, and veteran status. That information helps give insight to root causes of homelessness, but Gruters said that data tends to be incomplete.

Gruters said last year, only about 40% of people who were counted answered survey questions. He hopes to see that number increase this year.

“We do the best we can to make that as palatable to somebody as possible. One of the key things we’ve done this year is we’ve shortened the survey,” Gruters said.

When people decline to answer survey questions, they’re still included in the final count of unsheltered people. But that number, too, is almost certainly an undercount, said Richard Crews, program director with the human services nonprofit, Keys to Change.

“We’re working with a population that’s good at not being counted, that’s good at, as a means of survival, existing in the cracks and crevices of society,” Crews told KJZZ’s “The Show.”

Homelessness is more visible

Even with hundreds of volunteers, the count doesn’t reach every corner of every block in the region, and organizers have no way of counting people living in their cars, staying in motels or couch surfing. Human services organizations across the region keep records on individuals they serve, which results in data that’s likely a much more accurate look at homelessness in Maricopa County, Crews said.

But fanning out across the county to make annual observations for the Point-In-Time count allows organizers to pinpoint exactly where people experiencing homelessness are; the smartphone app outreach teams use records GPS data for each interaction. Gruters said, for him, that’s one of the clearest ways to understand the massive scale of the issue.

“You can see it on the map,” Gruters said. “There are green dots for every person that we counted, and they’re from east to west, north to south.”

And that consistent snapshot taken at the same time each year, paired with other data, starts to show some very clear trends.

In the 10 years Greenlief has been participating, the number of unsheltered people counted on the streets of Maricopa County during the Point-In-Time count has more than tripled.

“When I started, you really had to look for folks, you had to have a flashlight and be on the lookout,” Greenlief said.

Now, she said, homelessness has become much more visible in Phoenix. And she hears more stories of people who can’t make ends meet.

“Rent goes up and their benefits don’t go up at the same rate, or even people who are working a minimum wage job, that’s not enough money to afford a place,” Greenlief said.

“It’s frustrating because more needs to be done," Greenlief said while driving back after another day recording these firsthand observations.

Whatever this year’s report shows, Greelief said she just hopes lawmakers will take notice.

More stories from KJZZ

Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent reporting on a variety of issues, including public health and climate change.