By Lynne Hendricks
---- — NEWBURYPORT — On the surface, a survey last year that found no homeless people living on the streets in Greater Newburyport may seem like good news.
But John Feehan, executive director of the YWCA Greater Newburyport, doesn’t believe the results are painting a complete picture.
Feehan said the survey, which encompassed Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley, Amesbury and Salisbury, didn’t fully capture the homelessness problem here at home.
The count as performed by Salem-based North Shore Home Consortium documented as many homeless cases as could be identified via state agencies and school districts. But it didn’t account for multiple families living in single-family dwellings, long-term occupants of hotels or young people moving from place to place.
“The face of homelessness is different here than it is in other communities. We’re not Lynn, Lawrence or Boston with shelters and visible homeless people on the streets,” Feehan said. “The homeless population here is within four walls.”
Tomorrow night, a team of volunteers assembled by the YWCA will work with local aid agencies that assist the area’s homeless population and area police departments that have officers regularly patrolling the streets in hopes of doing a more thorough job this year in compiling an official homeless count for the region.
In so doing, they hope to make a case for greater state funding to help provide housing to residents in need.
“We know that the number is not zero,” Feehan said of the area’s homeless population. “It’s not a very large number, but we know the number is not zero.
“ ... One of the biggest things we want to do is raise the awareness level regarding the issue in the Seacoast area, and show that this is a problem in Amesbury, Newburyport, Salisbury, Newbury and Rowley.”
Feehan said the homeless in Greater Newburyport constitute families who are doubling up in one apartment and splitting the rent or who are booked long term at local hotels after becoming homeless and using state-provided vouchers to help defray costs. They are also high school students living in foster care or other situations where they’re moving from one place to another.
“That works for only so long and then they stay at another friend’s house,” Feehan said. “Their goal is to get through high school and those kids are considered homeless.”
Feehan said the YWCA will follow a four-pronged approach with its survey. In addition to reaching out to area agencies such as the Pettengill House in Salisbury and Newburyport-based Roof Over Head and Turning Point for an idea of the number of homeless they assist and working with local police to identify homeless people living on the streets, organizers will assemble data from school districts that administer the McKinney-Vento program assisting homeless students and incorporate data from the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Feeney said the results, which will be provided to the consortium, could benefit area agencies that provide assistance to struggling families and also act as a catalyst for additional housing for families or displaced teens.
The YWCA, which has been offering housing to the homeless at its Market Street site since 1998, is in the process of doubling its stock of available lodging units from five to 10. The new units will accept residents beginning this summer or fall.
“If we get good numbers that show there’s a large enough population to advocate for a program, then you let the numbers guide where you want to go,” Feehan said. “There’s certainly a need for more affordable housing. Whether or not we need additional housing for homeless people or families — that’s part of what we hope to accomplish by the count. My sense is we could build another facility for homeless families.”
A call for volunteers to conduct the count has already garnered sufficient numbers necessary to carry out the task.
In conjunction with the count, the YWCA will be distributing new blankets, jackets, hats, gloves and socks to those in need. Donations of items may be dropped off at City Hall on Pleasant Street or at the YWCA.
“We are asking for donations of ... items that are one size fits all,” Feehan said. “When we go out to do the physical count, we’ll take those items with us and offer them to people to see if they can benefit from them. Anything that’s left over will go to Pettengill House.”