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A survey of unsheltered homelessness is underway in the Big Bend

A collection of belongings lie on the ground outside.
Mihály Köles

This week one of the area’s social services agencies is taking a count of the number of unsheltered people in the Big Bend. The Continuum of Care’s annual point-in-time survey comes as the issue of unsheltered homelessness has become a major focal point in the area.

About a dozen volunteers gathered in one of the halls of a local church during the weekend to learn what to, and what not to do, as they prepare to venture into the woods to conduct the point-in-time survey. Herman Davenport is among them. He heard the Big Bend Continuum of Care needed volunteers to help with the survey through his church, and a friend persuaded him to register. It’s his first time participating in the count. He's feeling nervous about his upcoming shift duty.

"There’s a little apprehension there and there’s a little ‘oh it would be great to see all this stuff ' because, where I work at –out west...they always said there’s a homeless camp out there in the woods."

Davenport says he hasn’t paid much attention to the issue until more recently when the debate over closing a shelter on Mahan Drive became a major local story. That got him wondering about what people do and where they go when they’re unsheltered. So he wants to find out more for himself.

“I guess learning more about the people who are in a homeless state, and interacting with the volunteers, and trying to understand more about homelessness," Davenport said when asked what he was seeking through his participation.

The point-in-time survey is just that: a snapshot of what unsheltered homelessness looks like in the Big Bend. "Unsheltered" means that a person has slept in a place that doesn’t meet their basic needs, like having heat, running water, or a functional bathroom. The volunteers cannot be everywhere at once, so the annual count is more of an indication of the severity of the issue rather than a precise measurement. What the count is good for is tracking how unsheltered homelessness has changed over time.

“I think a lot of people picture someone on the side of the road in rags who is dirty and probably has some sort of substance abuse issue that’s leading them to choose to be outside," said Sara Ramkissoon.

She supervises the street outreach program—the workers who go into the places others won’t, or don’t. Increasingly, Ramkissoon says, the folks she’s encountering don’t fit the stereotype of unsheltered homelessness.

“Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, that’s not the case," she said. "It’s someone who has fallen on hard times who didn’t have someone to catch them. And it snowballed into a deeper hole to get out of.”

The changeover, says Big Bend Continuum of Care Executive Director Johnna Coleman, occurred during the pandemic.

“Pre-2020, we were seeing an incredible downshift in the people experiencing homelessness…we were being viewed as…examples for other communities," she said, citing the city's progress in helping unhoused veterans secure a stable place to live.

The area's efforts though have backslid as financial help dried up at a time when the need skyrocketed due to high rents, and low, affordable housing inventory.

“The solution to homelessness is housing," said Coleman, "but also, looking at the social services we have available, we need to see the people already in housing sustain it. If not, we see steadily see the shift of more people entering homelessness without others exiting, and we’re seeing that.”

During the pandemic, people were afraid to be near one another, volunteering stalled, and the counts couldn't be done as thoroughly as in years past. Those counts are tied to the amount of funding the agency receives, which hurt the BBCOC's budget, and additionally, its ability to help people who may have only required a down payment of a month's rent or a utility bill to get by.

Coleman says she always felt called to social services but thought she’d be doing more work in the criminal justice sector. She stays in her field, despite the lack of pay, and resources, because she wants to help people.

Still, the work is draining. And the needs seem endless.

“I will tell you I don’t know how long I’ll stay in this because it’s very taxing. But the fight is definitely one that’s worth the cause and as long as I feel the work is productive and it’s not compromising my health, I will stay here," said Coleman.

Ramkissoon began as a biomedical engineering major at Florida State University. That changed, however, when her grandfather died. And Ramkissoon spiraled. She would later go on a mission trip to Guatemala with classmates that would change her life. And when she came back, she changed her major. Working in social services says Ramkissoon, has given her a different outlook.

“My understanding of the world changed dramatically. I was jarred about the amount of pain and suffering in this world, and to do my best not to contribute to it," she said.

"I know people talk about boundaries and they’re very important. But some of the best relationships I’ve made here in Tallahassee are with the unsheltered community, and I wouldn’t have it any other way."

The Big Bend Continuum of Care’s point-in-time survey runs through the 28th.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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