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Getting an accurate count of a city or town's homeless population is a challenge, and it's even tougher in rural areas. Those communities are often short on shelters, so the homeless are spread out, spending cold nights in cheap motels or crashing with friends or family. So when the official one-day homeless count happens, called the Point-In-Time count, many get overlooked. Miles Bryan of Wyoming Public Radio reports.
MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: During this year's count, volunteers fanned out across Cheyenne, Wyo., to find the town's homeless population. It happens all across the country in January, and it's a big job for just one day. Volunteer Jennifer Cruz has been driving around Cheyenne all morning and hasn't found anyone.
JENNIFER CRUZ: They're not out in the open like you would see in a larger city because they find places. I just met a gentleman who's sleeping on his brother's couch, but he's homeless.
BRYAN: To find as many people experiencing homelessness as they can, this year, volunteers are getting creative. They put up flyers around town advertising a free meal and hot drinks in Cheyenne's main plaza where people like Belinda Smith administer federal homelessness surveys.
BELINDA SMITH: These questions are not mine, and if you don't choose to answer them, you don't have to.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yep.
SMITH: Do you drink alcohol?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sometime.
BRYAN: But volunteers here are still going to miss some people who don't have a home, people like Dale Dean.
DALE DEAN: Come on in, Bud.
BRYAN: Dean is staying in the Pioneer Hotel, a cheap place in Cheyenne. Right now he's crashing on a friend's futon.
DEAN: Being this is wintertime, you know, it gets very cold.
BRYAN: Do you ever have to sleep outside?
DEAN: So far I haven't. I've been very fortunate, you know? I've met enough people.
BRYAN: That's lucky. There's only one homeless shelter in Cheyenne, and currently, its 90-or-so beds are completely full. But Dean's good luck is the reason the Point-In-Time count isn't always accurate. This year, Dean won't be counted as homeless.
BRENDA LYTTLE: We have to use the HUD definition of homelessness.
BRYAN: HUD is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Brenda Lyttle is Wyoming's state homelessness coordinator.
LYTTLE: And the HUD definition is someone who is in a shelter or who is living in a place not meant for human habitation.
BRYAN: HUD's logic for counting the homeless in January is that the cold weather will drive people into emergency shelters where they're easier to find. Homeless people stay with friends in urban and rural areas, but in Wyoming, which has just one shelter in the western third of the state, Lyttle says it's especially common. The Point-In-Time count in part determines how much federal money state homeless services get, and advocates say when even a few homeless people aren't counted, it can make a big difference in the funding.
RICK GARCIA: We are aware of that. The count certainly is not perfect.
BRYAN: Rick Garcia is a regional administrator for HUD based in Denver. He says the January count is the best time for the country as a whole. Most people experiencing homelessness live in urban areas. Los Angeles counted over 40,000 homeless people last year. Wyoming counted about 800.
GARCIA: I think the goal is - is that we have a count at one time of year that everyone in the nation is creating.
BRYAN: But the Point-In-Time count is just one of many challenges that those seeking to end rural homelessness face, says Megan Hustings. She's the director of the National Coalition For The Homeless.
MEGAN HUSTINGS: Big cities, you'll see big shelters. There's lots of different service organizations. Many small rural areas don't have any shelter whatsoever.
BRYAN: Like Laramie, Wyo., a university town with a population of about 30,000. The nearest shelter is an hour away with no regular bus service to get there. Wyoming homeless advocates are now working on a plan to do another homeless population count this summer. It won't open the door to more federal funding, but it will help them get a better sense of homelessness in the state. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in Laramie.
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