Rock County homeless count serves as eye-opener
A cold night didn't stop volunteers from scouring Rock County for homeless people. Janesville Gazette reporter Ann Marie Ames was out with the volunteers. Kyle Geissler reports. You can read more in Friday's Janesville Gazette.
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Ann Marie Ames blogs about her experience with the homeless headcount.
JANESVILLE All my life, I’ve been familiar with the long stretch of parking lots and big box stores that are Janesville’s Milton Avenue.
But that stretch looks a lot longer at 3 a.m. when it’s bitter cold and all you can think is, “What if we find someone in the next car? What if someone is hiding behind that Dumpster?”
I was one of 115 volunteers who combed Rock County between midnight and 4 a.m. Thursday during the Rock County Homeless Task Force’s twice-annual homeless count.
I know at least three people were taken into emergency shelter. The complete results will not be available until later today. The Gazette will report the numbers when they are available.
The count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The results help determine the needs of the local homeless population, said Marc Perry, director of planning and development for Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties.
The count is a “24-hour snapshot” of the homeless population in shelters and on the streets, Perry said.
I was part of a six-person team assigned to search Janesville’s northeast side, including the Palmer Park area and Milton Avenue.
After an orientation session at ECHO, my group was given specific instructions to look for a woman in her 80s who is known to sleep in her car in the Janesville Mall parking lot.
“She might be shy, or she might want to stay living in that situation because of her mental condition,” volunteer Bill Schyvinck said. “But it’s not good for her. Try to engage her.”
Schyvinck’s team went straight to Dunkin’ Donuts on Milton Avenue. The parking lot is a known “hot spot” for people to park when they are living out of their cars.
Volunteer Tami Prochazka, the social services coordinator for Janesville’s Salvation Army, introduced herself to two men sleeping in a car in the lot.
They were a father and his adult son. The elderly man was using oxygen from a tank in the back seat. They had been sleeping in their car in that spot for several nights.
Another team was instructed to carefully search the trails between Mercy Hospital and the Rock River. A couple is known to be living in the area with a child.
If they were there Thursday morning, they stayed hidden.
My team did not find the woman we searched for at the mall. We also searched the youth baseball diamonds and many parking lots. We talked to cashiers at gas stations, Perkins and Walmart.
On one hand, it’s great news that volunteers found few people living outdoors.
Still, Perry said he would have a hard time sleeping while thinking about the singles and families who slipped through the cracks.
“Our homeless people have gotten really good at finding places off the beaten path to stay unnoticed and unharassed,” Perry said.
Some search teams found camps under bridges and other places. The noise of the teams clearly scared some people out of their encampments, volunteer Billy Bob Grahn said.
During the orientation session, Grahn encouraged volunteers to “be creative” in their searches.
Many people might be living in overlooked, abandoned houses or businesses, Perry said.
“It’s unsafe, but it’s warmer than sleeping in a cardboard box under the highway,” Perry said.
Thursday’s volunteer turnout was double last year’s record-breaking number of volunteers, Perry said.
Volunteers came from Beloit College, Parker High School, UW-Rock County and the Rock County Young Professionals, among other groups.
“We’ve never been able to send someone to Footville and Orfordville before,” Perry said. “We literally covered the entire county.”
Several groups counted in Janesville and Beloit as well as the smaller cities of Milton, Edgerton and Evansville. Groups moved up and down the Interstate 90/39 corridor and counted semi-rural areas such as Shopiere and Afton.
They searched laundromats and rest areas and talked with cashiers and bartenders.
The volunteers did more than just make a thorough search, Perry said.
“That’s 115 more advocates for the work we do,” he said. “That’s amazing.”