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Volunteers Needed For Homeless Count; New App To Speed Survey

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

Opening Doors Northwest Florida, Inc. is preparing for its January 22 Point-In-Time count of the area’s homeless people.

With a couple of weeks to go, there’s a need for more volunteers, and this year, their training will include instruction on how to use a new app designed to streamline the process.

“The Point-In-Time count is our census count of our homeless population in Escambia and Santa Rosa county,” said Martika Baker, quality assurance director for Opening Doors and coordinator of the region’s 2020 PIT count.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires such continuum of care agencies to conduct the annual survey to get a snapshot of each community’s homeless population. In 2019, that number was 518 homeless people in the two-county area.

“And, what they will do is utilize this snapshot and they will determine the need in each community,” Baker said. “What sorts of subpopulations are having the most homeless issues and what is leading to their homelessness, such as, is it a health condition, is it substance abuse, is it release from veteran services, is it release from incarceration?”

According to Baker, the data, collected over a 24-hour-period during the last 10 days in January, will help the federal government determine what support services are needed and how much federal funding will be made available locally.

Getting an accurate count is imperative. That’s why Opening Doors Northwest Florida is putting out the call for volunteers.

“We need about 100 to be able to get a full volunteer group together to depart out into the community to get our count started, get it completed and get our data in,” Baker declared.

As of Friday, just 30 volunteers had registered, ahead of an expected influx of student volunteers from the University of West Florida.

To boost recruitment efforts, Opening Doors is also reaching out on their website, openingdoorsnwfl.org,  through various social media outlets, and through a volunteer recruitment link on the United Way of West Florida website.

For those who sign up this year, the local process will include the first-ever use of a new mobile app to conduct the survey. The app was born out of a hack-a-thon event in the Tampa area.

“They had a theme for their hack-a-thon, where ten development teams came down and within this COC’s were saying, ‘We need something for PIT. PIT is a pain. We have to get so much data and the de-duplication process is a nightmare.’”

“Hi, my name is Zak and I’ll be showing you a quick tour of Hyperion, software built to help CoC’s (continuums of care) with the annual Point in Time Count,” said Zak Miller in a demo video on his Point in Time website.

It was Miller and his development team that created the Hyperion App. In the video he offers it free of charge to organizations who’d like to use it for the 2020 PIT count and details how it streamlines the process.

“Using Hyperion will improve data quality, help you spot and avoid problems during the count and will put you in a position to submit your data to HUD if you want to,” Miller stated.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
This group of volunteers attends a training session recently at the new Opening Doors Northwest Florida headquarters. The annual Point-In-Time count is Jan. 22.

For 2020,Opening Doors plans to continue to use the paper survey form for those who may not feel comfortable using the app. But, volunteers are encouraged to use the app because it provides real-time homeless data and produces faster results, cutting the report time of about four months to two months or less.

“Welcome to Opening Doors and we are going to start going over the Point In Time Count,” said Baker, as she opened a training session for about eight individuals Friday at Opening Doors’ new home on New Warrington Road.

Aaron Jacobs joined her to talk about the new Hyperion app, “So, just to give you an overview, like Martika said, we’re gonna be trying to go mobile; we’re mobile this year.”

It is Jacobs, who will be managing the app-based data collection locally. When it goes live, volunteers will be sent a link via email.

“It’s very user friendly, surprisingly user-friendly for something that’s been recently developed,” Jacobs began. “It’s all web-based, so you pull it up on your phone. You don’t have to download an app or anything like that. You just put in the address, it’s a website essentially, and the survey is all there for you.”

“I’m with Mission Brownsville at Brownsville Assembly of God. We have Saturday service where they come into the chapel, then we feed them in the back on that day, then on Mondays we distribute,” said Maria Willett, one of the volunteer recruits sitting in on Friday’s training session.  

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Maria Willett, center, Ronnie Southern and Scott Stahlman volunteer their time with organizations that serve the homeless. They recently attended training to assist with the upcoming Point -In-Time homeless count in the Pensacola area.

Although Willett works with the homeless population on a regular basis, this will be her first time helping with the annual PIT count. At 68 years old, she’s a bit apprehensive about using the mobile app for the survey, but says she’s willing to give it a try.

“Well, I think if I can practice, I’d be more comfortable with it. I think it’ll probably go faster,” Willett said.

As requested, volunteers will be given an opportunity to practice before the count on Jan. 22.

“If I am not comfortable, then I’ll be honest. And, there’s always the paper, so we have back up,” Willett added with a bit of laughter.

Meantime, more volunteers are needed and such individuals need to be at least 16 years old to participate. A guardian must accompany those under the age of 18.

There are three more training sessions planned. The next one is tomorrow (Jan. 7) at 5:30 p.m. at the Opening Doors headquarters at 1020 North New Warrington Road, Pensacola. The final sessions are January 17 at 10 a.m. and January 21 at 5:30 p.m.  Registration links are available on the Opening Doors Northwest Florida website and Facebook page.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.