By Sean Wardwell
Killeen Daily Herald
Early Thursday morning, Alvin Dillard and 15 other volunteers spread out across Killeen looking for a problem that remains mostly invisible.
He was looking for homeless people, and outside a downtown church on North Gray Street, he may have found one.
"Excuse me," he called to a disheveled, bearded man walking away from him. "Excuse me, we're doing a survey ..."
The man looked behind him and continued to walk away, increasing the distance between himself and Dillard, who didn't chase after him. Dillard was part of a one-day count of the area's homeless, performed every two years.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates the count for social service organizations receiving federal funds to help the homeless or economically disadvantaged.
Four teams of volunteers were dispatched Thursday morning to the main library, the area around the downtown H-E-B and a bus station on 10th Street. Volunteers also checked under bridges near Killeen Community Center Park on W.S. Young Drive. Equipped with free hygiene kits and extra pairs of socks, the volunteers were trying to not only estimate the city's homeless population, but also to help secure federal grants to help them.
"The more information we have, the better chance we have to receive funds," said Leslie Hinkle, Killeen's director of community development, at a briefing before teams left the Killeen HELP Center to start the count.
"In our city, we tend to see more of the hidden homeless population, and that is folks who are maybe doubling-up in a household with other families, tripling up and sometimes hopping from house to house," she said. "Fortunately, we don't have a lot of people living on the streets in Killeen. They're able to, somehow, find housing in some form."
Hinkle admits a count performed one day every two years probably doesn't give an accurate picture of the problem. The last one the city did in January 2010 identified 17 homeless individuals.
"I think it's a good attempt to get some sort of baseline data out there," she said. "There is a count done on the off-years, but it's a count done of people who are housed in an emergency shelter or transitional housing."
Hinkle said this is the only count in which the city participates. It was coordinated with the Central Texas Homeless Alliance. It also developed a 38-question survey.
Other groups participating in Killeen's count included Texas A&M University-Central Texas' school of social work, the 3rd Weather Squadron at West Fort Hood and members of the Heritage House board, which is trying to build Killeen's first overnight homeless shelter.
"I just wanted to get the experience and help out," said Jamie Warner, a 35-year-old social work student who lives in Killeen. "We walked several blocks and were unable to find anybody, but we saw some remnants of what looked like a homeless area."
While approaching strangers and asking if they're homeless may seem like a daunting task, Hinkle said they're people and deserve to be treated accordingly.
"These are people just like you and me who just don't have a home right now," she said. "I think people are suspicious. It's not something you see every day, people walking up and saying, 'Hey, can I ask you a question about homelessness?' That's just not something that's part of the normal conversation, I guess.
"I think you have people in this community who really care and try to make things work better. This is just one thing we can try to do to support programs in the future we can hopefully get funding for," she said.
The number of homeless people identified Thursday was not available at press time. The Central Texas Homeless Alliance will conduct a similar count in Copperas Cove today.
Contact Sean Wardwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7552. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcity.
Social Services snapshot - Killeen 2011
Bell County residents on food assistance: More than 43,000, or 13.97 percent of the county's population.
Average monthly food assistance payment, per case: $305.
Adult Medicaid enrollments: 33,159 a month, on average.
Children's Medicaid enrollments: 22,442 a month, on average.
Children's Health Insurance Program enrollments: 3,689 a month, on average.
Source: Texas Health and Human Services Commission