Snow is still thick on the ground as teams of volunteers strike out from Catholic Charities’ office in Vineland on a frigid January morning. Their mission: find as many homeless as possible on the streets of Cumberland County and give them a survey.
One of the teams pulls up to a cluster of men standing together near an abandoned building on a Vineland street near downtown. They start by asking a simple question: Where did you sleep last night?
One man points to the slab of concrete where he’s sitting, feet in the slushy mud. “Right here.”
It’s 10 in the morning, but the smell of beer permeates the group. The team spreads out, speaking one on one with the men, asking them questions from the surveys on their clipboards and giving them bags of donations. How long have you been homeless? What are the causes of your homelessness? What services do you want or need?
The man who slept where he now sits looks up with clear eyes when he’s asked what services he needs: housing? food? cash? He answers, “I want an Alcoholics Anonymous in Spanish. I need help.”
For the last three years, Cindy Lebron, Housing Counseling Program Coordinator for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, has led the street teams that count the homeless for Cumberland County each year. The county heads up the annual count, opening “Project Connect” centers throughout the area where the homeless can come to receive services and take the surveys. Lebron’s teams are charged with finding the rest.
“We do this for three reasons. The first one is to show the homeless that we care,” Lebron says. “The second is for awareness. A lot of people in the community aren’t aware that there are homeless here. The last, of course, is to get the numbers, to show that there is a need in the community so that we can get more funding to get them off the street.”
The surveys are mandated by the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The numbers determine how much funding the county will receive in a given year for programs that help prevent homelessness and get people off the streets. Catholic Charities competes for and administers several such grants throughout the year that provide rental and utilities assistance to those who struggle, and long-term housing counseling and case management to help people stay housed.
The official numbers of homeless counted in each county during this year’s Point in Time Surveys will be released in the late Spring.
Update 2/11/16 – An earlier version of this story included the number of homeless counted during this year’s Point in Time Survey in Cumberland County. That paragraph was corrected to reflect the fact that the official numbers have not yet been released.