Last month I was fortunate to volunteer for Room in the Inn, the Memphis emergency winter shelter program that works with faith-based groups to provide people experiencing homelessness with dinner and overnight stays November through March.

Before first helping with the program four years ago at Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church, I had vacillated between ignoring and giving to the homeless, both through United Way payroll deductions and directly on the street, typically keeping just enough distance to assuage my guilt without getting too close for comfort.

Because Room in the Inn eliminates that distance, it’s both rewarding and disconcerting, with the former outweighing the latter 10-to-one. As our hosted group of 11 women and five children headed back downtown six days before Christmas, I wondered how often they’d be bused from church to church before finding permanent housing, and whether any would sleep on the streets between temporary shelters.

An internet search led to the 2017–18 Point-in-Time reports for Memphis and Shelby County, with results from the annual HUD-mandated census/survey of the homeless on a single night in late January. Conducted locally by Community Alliance for the Homeless, Inc. (CAFTH), the 2018 count included 1,226 people experiencing homelessness, 92 percent of whom were sleeping in transitional housing or emergency shelters like Room in the Inn. The remaining 8 percent were “unsheltered” (sleeping in streets, parks, encampments and vehicles), a 29 percent increase over the 2017 count, departing from a 69 percent overall decline since from 326 in 2012.

Why? The 2018 report cites Memphis’ high poverty rate, and a lack of services for those with mental illness, substance abuse, or fleeing domestic violence. It also refers to Dr. Elena Delavega’s U of M Poverty Fact Sheets, which point to 1) a labor market with lots of unskilled warehouse workers, 2) ”the lack of comprehensive, effective, and efficient public transportation”, and 3) “the divide between the city and the county, as evidenced by the racial and geographical differences in poverty, (which) tends to deprive…Memphis of the funds it needs to support the region.”

An increase in “chronic homelessness” also bucked the overall positive trends of the 2018 data, rising by 31 percent from 66 to 87 people between 2017 and 2018. These most vulnerable people are homeless repeatedly and/or for long periods, and with a disabling condition such as mental illness, chronic substance abuse disorder or other chronic health issues. Studies such as this 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have shown that “Housing First” permanent supportive housing is the most effective solution for reducing chronic homelessness, so it’s not surprising CAFTH has prioritized that in 2018.

According to CAFTH’s Continuum of Care Coordinator Herman Dickey, last year’s increase was related a shortage of permanent supportive housing, so the group has implemented “Move On” vouchers to more quickly secure housing before adding support services, for those who consistently maintain higher levels of self-sufficiency. This allows us to get clients into low-barrier, affordable housing quickly, in the least restrictive way, regardless of credit problems and health issues. Only then do we add supportive services such as health care, mental health services, job training, etc.,” Dickey said.

Since funding these programs depends on good data, the annual count this Wednesday, Jan. 23 will be crucial to identifying what’s needed most to support Memphis’ chronically homeless. And that, in turn, depends on having enough volunteers to help.

Interested? The CAFTH signup site currently lists 32 open positions, and notes the required training will be provided online this year. Registration closes at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, so sign up soon. And be sure to dress warmly — sub-freezing temps are expected.

For more info on the Point in Time Count, check out Micaela Watts’ piece on the 2018 census.

And if you’re concerned about someone who’s living unsheltered (or a youth between 18–24 unaccompanied or couch-surfing), Dickey recommends asking permission to contact CAFTH on their behalf, noting their name, location and appearance. With that info, you can complete CAFTH’s Homeless Outreach Request, and someone from the outreach team will contact them within 48 hours.

Jeff Lehr is an operations analyst with First Tennessee Bank, and serves as an alternate delegate to Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) for Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.