Documentary producer asks what homeless people count
Sunday morning, Jan 10, Maurice Smith of Rising River Media received a call from a homeless outreach worker who told him police were investigating the death of a homeless man whose body was found in the morning wrapped in a blanket near the bottom of the Monroe Street hill. The apparent cause of death was exposure.
"He froze to death on our city streets," said Maurice, asking: "Does this person count? Not in 2021."
In recent years, the City of Spokane's annual homeless Point-In-Time count theme has been "Everybody Counts."
Two years ago, Maurice did his first documentary on the count called "On Any Given Night." For 2021, the city announced unsheltered individuals would not be contacted by outreach staff or volunteers
If only people at a local shelter are counted, are homeless individuals dying of exposure on the streets not worth counting, Maurice wondered.
He's aware the approach is because of COVID restrictions but said it guarantees an undercount of the homeless population, which has grown in COVID.
"Why should COVID restrictions stop a thorough count when the same restrictions do not stop local enforcement from doing 'Sit-and-Lie' sweeps of homeless people downtown, forcing them to 'move on' when there are no shelter beds to access?" he asked.
He said the city's website says its outreach is to track contacts and demographic information, and caseworkers are to refer encounters to the Spokane City and County Continuum of Care's Coordinated Entry/Assessment project for assessment and housing placement.
First, he said that if that happened there would be no need for a Point-In-Time Count, because outreach workers and caseworkers do that.
Second, he said it isn't the job of outreach workers to report and in COVID, many agencies have restricted staff from outreach.
As a documentary filmmaker on homelessness, he has accompanied outreach teams to homeless camps and under bridges in recent months. No one reported the contacts, because doing so leads to a follow-up visit by a sweep team, Maurice said.
One service provider expressed concern that the undercount will be used as reason to cut services.
"Cooperation between the city and service providers to address homelessness requires transparency and trust," he said.
The 2021 Point-In-Time plan guarantees a truncated count and an undercount, in the midst of "a swelling homeless population."
Christmas night, after celebrating Christmas with guests at the City Church Warming Center, Maurice went with an outreach team from Jewels Helping Hands to distribute food, blankets and gifts on the street.
"It was snowing. We encountered an intoxicated man who was nearly naked in the snow. We got him into some warm clothes when someone noticed he had no shoes (only wet socks)," he said.
The call went out, "Does anyone have size 11 shoes?"
"I did. I took off my shoes and gave them to the team who helped the man put on dry socks and shoes. I had more shoes at home. He needed shoes to prevent frostbite. Maurice asked: "Does this man count?
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February, 2021