While a recent survey shows the number of homeless individuals dropping in South Dakota, it also highlights the shifting demographics of homelessness and the barriers that keep people living on the streets.
The majority surveyed reported being homeless for the first time, with main reasons being they couldn’t afford rent, had lost a job or had substance abuse issues. They also trended younger this year, with most between 26 and 35 years old, instead of in the 36 to 45 range the accounted for the greatest number in the 2011 survey.
The survey also suggested most homeless people in the state are holding jobs but not earning enough to keep a roof over their heads.
The survey, conducted on Sept. 25 by the South Dakota House for the Homeless Consortium, counted 1,166 homeless individuals, including 336 children across the state. This is down 26 percent from the 1,453 counted on the survey done in 2011.
Lisa Bondy, the statewide coordinator of the group, described the survey as a 24-hour snapshot in time. Volunteers, law enforcement officers and local government agencies carried out the survey across the state on the same day by canvassing shelters and areas known to have homeless populations.
In Pierre, surveys were handed out during Project Connect Day, an event offering health screenings, clothing and other services for those in need.
However, Bondy said the survey numbers are soft, as they only represent willing people who could be surveyed that day. The rural areas are especially problematic as there are few shelters and homelessness is less visible.
Bondy attributed the recorded drop in homelessness numbers to the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, a three-year, $3.2 million initiative from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that ended in September.
The program provided assistance with rent and security or utility deposits, along with a case management system to help track those who get into housing. Bondy said this last part was “integral” because it provided a support network instead of just giving someone money.
“Short-term fixes don’t solve long-term problems,” she said.
Bondy said, more than the numbers, the stories mined during the survey are the true indicators of the homelessness problem.
“The count goes up and down, but what their needs are stay consistent,” she said.
The most surprising statistic to Bondy is that 94 percent listed employment as their source of income, meaning most are working either full-time, part-time or day labor jobs, but not earning enough to afford a home.
Bondy said many reported they needed help securing a job and paying for a first month’s rent and security deposits. Others struggle with credit, transportation or day care issues to gain employment or get into a home, she said.
“Barriers that come up that we don’t think about are stopping people from getting into housing,” Bondy said.