MANSFIELD — Kelly Blankenship was driving back toward Harmony House late Tuesday night, the annual “point-in-time” count complete.

As the homeless shelter executive director stopped her car at the intersection of Third and Walnut streets, a man walked toward the vehicle. He asked for “a couple of bucks to buy food,” saying he was sleeping in a nearby alley.

Blankenship gave the man a bag of necessities, including gloves and snacks, and directed him back to the shelter (which had no space for him Tuesday night) for a blanket.

The man was the only resident experiencing homelessness that Blankenship encountered during an hours-long driving tour of the city, a count required in every county in the country by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The federal agency requires the counts of unhoused persons — in shelters and unsheltered — in communities like Mansfield that receive federal funding from the Continuum of Care and Emergency Solutions Grant Programs.

The fact it’s required by HUD doesn’t make it guaranteed accurate, according to Blankenship, who said the effort is more targeted at metro areas in Ohio and places like New York City and Los Angeles.

In fact, is there any way to accurately say how many unhoused residents there are in Richland County, beyond those in shelters like Harmony House, The Domestic Violence Shelter, etc.?

“No. No. I mean there’s just no … there’s not,” she said.

“In my opinion, this (PIT) is more for the big cities. I don’t think HUD really cares how many homeless people we have in Richland County tonight, but we have to do it anyway,” Blankenship said.

The count was not done in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Normally done in January each year, it was pushed back to Feb. 22 this year due to the omicron variant surge.

The count includes “unsheltered residents” encountered during the count (which can go to until 6 a.m. under the rules) as well as information gleaned from service providers like Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army over the next several days.

Those agencies will report that data to the Harmony House, who reports it to the state and ultimately to HUD.

Blankenship said numbers gleaned from service providers may not also contribute to an accurate count.

“People don’t have to give their information and then they want to know why you are being all nosy. A lot of people who are homeless and not in a shelter don’t want to tell you they are homeless. You know, it comes with a lot of shame,” she said.

The second Harmony House team encountered three adult residents experiencing homelessness right outside the shelter as the count began at 8 p.m., raising the official number to four for the evening — three males and one female.

CHANGE IN PROCEDURE: Years ago, a larger team, including law enforcement officers, was assembled for the PIT count. The entire county was scoured.

“It required a lot of volunteers and a lot of time and hardly ever turned up anything,” Blankenship said. “They used go to into abandoned buildings.  But apparently a police officer was injured (during a search) so we don’t do that anymore.

“You can knock on a door. You can look in a window, but we don’t go inside buildings looking for people anymore,” she said.

The effort has morphed into a sampling system in which state officials provide a county with specific census tracts to check during the PIT, sharply reducing the need for manpower.

Blankenship spent the evening driving roads marked on a map provided by the state. One area had an eastern border of Mulberry Street, Trimble Road on the west, Reed Street on the north and Park Avenue on the south.

She carefully drove each street, looking for signs of unhoused residents, including clearly uninhabitable buildings with lights on inside or other signs of activity.

She stopped and looked under multiple bridges, but the recent weather had streams running so high it’s unlikely anyone could be beneath.

There were many boarded up homes in the area, but no outward sign of anyone staying inside.

Her second search area was largely in Madison Township on the northwest side of Mansfield. Borders were U.S. 30 to the south, Bowman Street on the east, Poth Road to the north and Trimble on the west.

It quickly became clear during this portion of the effort that homelessness was far less likely.

Homes were better maintained and the number of uninhabitable dwellings was reduced. In addition, Blankenship said, it would be more difficult for unhoused residents in the area to obtain needed services downtown due to the distance involved.

NEXT YEAR: One potential solution to improve the PTI effort next year is to start earlier, according to Blankenship.

“We want to get more people involved who have an awareness about homeless people in the area. We want to talk to police officers and social service providers who may be able to better tell us where to find these people,” she said.

Blankenship said her shelter, the only year-round such facility in Richland County, is in the midst of a two-year, $350,000 grant from the federal government.

She hopes the state and federal government don’t base important funding decisions on PIT counts, which includes locations where unhoused people were found and any demographic information that can be obtained.

“I can’t imagine they give too much weight to one snapshot, a point-in-time count. I’m not sure exactly what HUD does with this data, what kind of decision making they base off of it.

“But I can’t imagine (much) would be based on one specific night in the entire year,” she said.

This year’s PIT comes on the heels of a Feb. 3 announcement about a new pilot program to help homeless residents in downtown Mansfield scheduled to launch in early April, featuring teams of behavioral health professionals and law enforcement officers.

The pilot program, expected to run through June 2023, is aimed at identifying unhoused residents, assessing their needs and helping to direct residents to assistance, according to Joe Trolian, executive director of Richland County Mental Health & Recovery Services.

“We are pretty proud of this pilot program,” Richland County Commissioner Tony Vero said. “We are not aware of any community in the country our size that is trying this.

“It may not work. We may not see success and we will have to pivot again.”

In the program, behavioral health professionals from Catalyst Life Services will start partnering with law enforcement officers during three, 4-hour shifts per week to contact unhoused residents.

Blankenship said she was interested to see how the program proceeds.

“I think we will have to wait and see how things go,” she said. “I know they are planning to evaluate and adjust the effort once they see what is working and what they may need to change.”

City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when...

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