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While the Shelby County homeless population count decreased in early 2021, unsheltered people doubled

An annual survey found fewer people experiencing homelessness, but more homeless people going unsheltered.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Fewer people found to be experiencing homeless in early 2021 isn't news that has the Community Alliance for the Homeless celebrating just yet.

Every year, the Community Alliance for the Homeless participates in the Point-in-Time count, partnering with local organizations to go out into the night to get a count of how many people are experiencing homelessness.

The count is also done overnight to gauge how many people are in shelters or transitional housing compared to those found sleeping outdoors.

While the count, done in late January but only recently released, found fewer people living homeless in Shelby County - the number of homeless people going unsheltered doubled, according to Grant Ebbesmeyer, the Continuum of Care Planning Director for the Community Alliance for the Homeless.

"We’re trying to not be celebratory that the homeless numbers are going down," he said. Obviously, that’s normally a very good thing and something to be happy about but we know COVID impacted this a lot.

The 2021 count was able to account for 739 people experiencing homelessness. That's about 300 fewer people than the year prior reflecting a decreasing trend over the years.

Point-in-Count results by year:

2021 – 739
2020 – 1,022
2019 – 1,325
2018 – 1,226
2017 – 1,426

From the 2021 count, the alliance was able to determine that 136 of the people counted with individuals in families, and 122 were veterans. Men accounted for 74% of the population.

From that, it was also determined that 202 of the people counted were found to be unsheltered, living outside. Ebbesmeyer said that's nearly double what they saw during the 2020 count.

"One thing is a lot of people didn’t feel comfortable going into a congregate setting during COVID and not knowing what was going to be happening, which of course is totally understandable," he said. "Some chose not to go to shelters. Some shelters actually decreased the numbers that they were allowing in so they could space people out."

Ebbesmeyer said they believe the eviction moratorium is one factor for seeing a decrease in homeless people. 

"We know that it wasn’t perfect," he said. "Families were still getting evicted during the pandemic obviously and still becoming homeless, but we can look at the numbers and tell there were several thousand fewer evictions in Shelby County compared to recent years.”

Ebbesmeyer said now that evictions are beginning to tick up more, they're seeing more families needing help for evictions. They do expect the homeless numbers to begin to tick back up.

In the ongoing work to shelter more people, Ebbesmeyer said funding from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan will allow the city to do more and provide more shelter beds once the money is distributed. They also have access to more housing vouchers, Ebbesmeyer says that's also exciting but it highlights another trouble area for the work that they do.

"We’re having difficulty actually finding that housing, so we definitely need property managers and landlords who are willing to be flexible with our providers and partner agencies to house families that may have some of those barriers on their backgrounds," he said.

Click here to learn more about the work of the CAFTH.

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