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School of Social Work students help count the homeless

By Susan White

Jennifer Manis smiled easily and listened closely as the woman in small round-framed glasses and heavy black coat shared her story of homelessness. For Manis and the group of other School of Social Work students volunteering at Urban Ministries of Durham, it was an opportunity to interact with residents struggling for housing stability.

Manis was one of about 20 social work students and faculty members from UNC and Shaw University helping to gather survey information on Jan. 27 for Durham’s “point-in-time” homeless count. Cities across the country conduct the counts, most annually, for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The surveys are supposed to offer a snapshot of the number of adults and children living in temporary shelters or on the streets. The data helps determine how much federal funding cities and towns receive for housing assistance programs.

At Urban Ministries, women pushing children’s strollers and men lugging backpacks crammed with their belongings, ambled into the cafeteria and slid into chairs next to count volunteers armed with pens and surveys. Manis, a master’s student in UNC’s dual-degree program in social work and divinity, recognized a few familiar faces. Her field placement this semester is with the Durham agency’s community shelter, where she works a couple of days each week helping homeless clients with everything from transportation to information on jobs.

“I think in general, people tend to think that the homeless are just drug addicts or criminals,” Manis said. “But so many of the people I’ve met and talked to are extremely talented, and some have very strong educational backgrounds, but they’ve just fallen on hard times.”

Since the economy soured, the agency’s shelter and soup kitchens have seen more low-income families in need, said Tom Holcomb, the agency’s shelter evening supervisor. Couple the families living on the brink of homelessness with those without permanent homes, and Holcomb estimates that the number of Durham residents struggling to find or maintain housing probably falls between 4,000 and 5,000.

The Durham shelter, which can house up to 175 people at a time, has an average nightly attendance of around 155, he said. About 1,700 individuals are served each month at the agency’s soup kitchen, which doles out about 17,000 monthly meals. Holcomb estimates that at least 40 percent of those served are not homeless.

This year’s homeless count was a first for most of the UNC volunteers. MSW student Chris Nealy saw the opportunity as a chance to get some “real world experience.” For Kate Mitchell, who came to the School with a business background, interacting with so many in need presented the direct practice experience she longs for.

Manis said the opportunity also offered the students a reality check.

“I hope we all take home the fact that any of us could be homeless,” she said. “What’s that statistic? That we’re all only two paychecks and one accident or major illness away from being homeless.”