With a little help from its friends, Niagara County will try to count its homeless people next month.
A Niagara University professor of social work is organizing the census, expected to be taken on a Friday night in late March.
The county needs to compile a figure for the unsheltered homeless to obtain a $1.9 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a County Legislature committee learned last week. Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino said the money would come from a federal program seeking to fund transitional housing for people who lose their homes.
Pam Gatto, the Social Services Department's director of eligibility, said no homeless count ever has been done in Niagara County.
"We had 493 people present themselves to us as homeless in 2005," Gatto said. But many of them were moving from place to place, crashing on the couches of friends and relatives for a few days before moving on.
"Most of the time they're not living in the street," Gatto said. "I don't think we have a lot of people living under bridges in Niagara County, but we have to do this survey."
Kevin Blair, professor of social work at Niagara University, has been recruiting students to take part in the census. "HUD is looking for chronic homeless, and their definition is very narrow," he said. "They want the unsheltered homeless."
To find them, Blair's team will talk to police, parks workers, food pantry staffers and others who encounter the destitute. "You can either drive around with your fingers crossed and hope you run into these people, or you can talk to people who know where they are," Blair said.
Once the count is taken, the county has to submit a plan to HUD for housing the homeless. Krueger, who has been chosen to head the Continuum of Care Committee, said the plan calls for seeking proposals from private and not-for-profit agencies.
The applicants will be screened by HUD, and, once approved, money from the grant will pay them to house the homeless, Krueger said.