Roughly 50 volunteers spread out across Billings on Thursday and Friday on behalf of the Human Resources Development Council to survey the city’s homeless population as part of the 2017 Point in Time Homeless Survey, a national effort aimed at accumulating data for better understanding homelessness.
The survey counts "people who are homeless and living on the streets and in places not meant for habitation, such as cars, bridges, homeless camps, and those residing in shelters and transitional living programs or receiving vouchers for hotels," according to an HRDC press release, which said close to 500 such people were counted in the Billings area in 2016.
The results of the survey are usually released in late April and are used by organizations at the federal and local level to allocate funding, said Liz Harding, an HRDC marketing and public relations specialist.
Locations where surveys were administered included the Billings Public Library, the Montana Rescue Mission Men’s Shelter, the MRM Women and Children’s Shelter, the Community Crisis Center, the HUB drop-in center and St. Vincent de Paul.
For some, like the four volunteers at the Women and Children’s Shelter — including one woman who drove down from the Hi-Line — this was their first time directly administering the surveys, which are also designed to collect data on homeless veterans.
Others like Brittany Feiler, an HRDC emergency services case manager, have been giving the survey for several years.
Feiler said certain basic questions remain on the survey yearly but others are phased out and replaced. This year’s survey included questions about use of emergency services and arrests, she said. Survey participants are offered bags, which include things like snacks, hand warmers and water.
“Some people are hesitant to answer these questions,” Feiler said. “You meet nice people in general. They’re mostly open to it.”
Feiler was working out of the downtown HUB building. In an office nearby, HUB and P.A.T.H. Program (Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness) team lead Carmen Gonzalez sat with the Yellowstone County Jail roster visible on her computer monitor.
While P.A.T.H. team members fanned out on the nearby streets and locales where the homeless are known to be seen, Gonzalez was looking for familiar names on the roster in preparation for delivery of surveys to the jail. Surveys are also given to homeless under care at local hospitals, Gonzalez said.
“The best thing is to get the most raw data possible,” volunteer Ryan Cremer said. Informed by data collected by the survey, organizations that work with homeless populations can operate more effectively, Cremer said.
The survey's purpose is "to get the truth," Gonzalez said.
"It's important because every life is important."