MERIDEN — Four volunteers gathered in the parking lot of Rushford, the region's mental health services authority on Paddock Avenue, on a seasonably cold January night.
Their purpose was to look for people in Meriden and Wallingford without permanent housing — whether in beds on the floors of overflow shelters, sleeping in vehicles or staying near public facilities, like train stations.
The Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness was among several organizations that recruited volunteers. The group in Meriden joined dozens of other groups statewide carrying out the same task. The coalition works through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on the annual Point-In-Time count of the homeless.
One year ago the point-in-time report counted 3,033 homeless individuals statewide. They included close to 1,900 adults over the age of 24 and 577 youth. The vast majority — 2,116 — stayed in homeless shelters, while 456 individuals were unsheltered.
In 2009, teams statewide encountered and surveyed 4,605 individuals.
Tuesday night's statewide totals weren't yet tallied. They will be followed by a separate, week long effort to survey youth who face housing instability.
The group, led by Deanna Bencivengo, housing/homeless outreach coordinator for Rushford, drove to different locations. They started with the Shelter Now building on St. Casimer Drive then went to “hotspots” — places where homeless individuals are suspected to be staying.
Those included the Walmart parking lot on North Colony Road in Wallingford, a medical office building lot in Meriden, and the train stations in both communities.
Bencivengo, who has participated in the count for more than a decade, said it can be difficult to reach and survey people regarding their housing situations.
Team members acknowledged the one-night count wouldn't capture all individuals in unstable housing situations. Many people who would be considered homeless often find temporary places to stay on a nightly basis.
“In our area, Meriden-Wallingford, they tend to stay very elusive and don't want to talk to us,” Bencivengo said. The following day, she said the group had managed to identify four individuals willing to be surveyed.
Roy Graham, who coordinates efforts to reach homeless youth for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, described the outreach effort as a continuous one.
Homeless youth, in particular, are especially difficult to locate.
“They are very versatile,” Graham said. “They know how to maneuver, not only from home to home. They can go from city to city in a heartbeat...If they're going from house to house, place to place, they don't consider themselves actually technically homeless…”
But HUD considers those with unstable housing as homeless.
“The information we gather tonight really helps fuel the funding we get to support the people who are homeless,” Bencivengo added.
Graham stressed the importance of making sure the homeless are counted, during a drive between hotspots.
“You do not want to let them go uncounted,” he said. “You cannot let them be invisible. You’ve got to keep them on your radar.”