For the fourth year in a row, the number of homeless people on Cape Cod continued to go down, according to an annual homeless census.
The number of people living outdoors, in hotel rooms, in shelters and transitional housing was 493 when a team of homeless advocates and volunteers braved the cold, snowy weather on Jan. 26 to do the homeless count.
That number is nearly half the people counted just three years earlier, but those who work with the Cape's homeless population say the numbers can be misleading.
Conducted in a single day to meet federal guidelines, the methodology has been criticized by outreach workers because it often misses the true number of homeless people, some of whom may have found shelter on that particular day.
"The numbers are just a snapshot on that day and although down slightly we obviously still have a very serious challenge ending homelessness on Cape Cod," said Melissa Carney, director of Client Self-Sufficiency Services at the Community Action Committee.
This year's count found 21 fewer homeless than in January 2010. The much higher years prior to 2010 included people in programs such as the CHAMP Homes, which house people on School Street in Hyannis. While many of the residents would be homeless without it, CHAMP Homes is not considered a homeless shelter. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development changed the rules, so places like CHAMP House are no longer factored in the count.
Also, there was bad weather on the day of the counts in both 2010 and 2011, which probably contributed to the low numbers, said Estelle Fritzinger of the Community Action Committee, one of the organizations participating in the count.
Based on a look at the many shelters run by Housing Assistance Corp., it's unclear if there are fewer homeless people on the Cape.
Allison Rice, vice president of operations at the housing agency, said the NOAH shelter in Hyannis did not fill all its 60 beds until March, when the shelter reached capacity a few times.
The family shelters have been averaging about one-third to one-half occupied by Cape Cod families, Rice said. Those numbers are rising, as the weather gets warmer, she said. The state refers off-Cape families to the HAC shelters, which often keeps them full, Rice said.
Rice said the numbers at the HAC shelters are too variable to show any real trend. But if there are fewer homeless on the Cape, it's because young families are moving off-Cape, she said.
And it's because of some good state and local programs. A few years ago, the state moved the homeless programs from the Department of Transitional Assistance to the Department of Housing and Community Development, Rice said. This makes sense because now homeless programs are controlled by the agency that deals with housing, she said.
Locally in the past few years, CHAMP Homes expanded, taking more vulnerable people off the streets. And a team of homeless people formed a group home called Homeless Not Hopeless Inc. They live in two homes on Ocean Street.
The 2010 and 2011 counts do not include people placed in permanent supportive housing.