On Jan. 28, volunteers across the state will attempt to count as much of South Dakota's homeless population as possible.
But due to winter weather and challenges that come with a lack of shelters in rural areas, that annual point-in-time (PIT) count, conducted by the South Dakota Housing for the Homeless Consortium, may not necessarily be able to account for all who are currently experiencing homelessness.
"A PIT count in January is a little bit difficult, because it's January in South Dakota," said Darcie Bultje, the community services director for the Rural Office of Community Services and one of the regional coordinators for the count. "We're not likely to find a whole lot of folks that are sleeping on the streets this time of year. If we did a homeless count in July, it would be a whole lot different count for us because we could go out on the streets, go out on the campgrounds, that kind of stuff. "
Organized by the SDHHC, which is affiliated with the South Dakota Housing Development Authority, a coordinator is assigned to each of the six geographic areas into which the state is divided for purposes of the annual count. There are four regions made up of between 14 and 20 counties, and Sioux Falls and Rapid City are counted separately from those other regions. Bultje's region is comprised of 20 counties in the southeast and south-central areas of the state.
Bultje told The Daily Republic on Tuesday that while volunteers may physically walk the streets of Sioux Falls and Rapid City during the count, that's not usually a method that's used in the less-populous majority of the state.
"In our smaller communities, it's a lot less likely, and most of our small communities have more of a culture of doubling up. They'll let people come stay with them rather than have them out on the streets, so that affects our count a little bit," Bultje said.
Instead, volunteers and coordinators will call service agencies around the region, some of which can provide a few nights in a hotel for those who urgently need shelter.
The count is further complicated because people aren't considered to be technically homeless while couch surfing or staying in someone else's residence, even if they'd be sleeping outside during the warmer months. From 2009 through 2013, when counts were conducted in the summer, the SDHHC counted an average of 1,447 people as being homeless statewide.
According to the SDHHC's data, there were 995 people identified as being homeless in the 2019 count, with more than 300 in both Sioux Falls and Rapid City. From 2014 through 2019, between 885 and 1,186 people were counted as homeless. In that same period, between 18 and 29 percent of those counted were under the age of 18.
Bultje said that in the region she coordinates, the highest concentration of people who are homeless is in Yankton, because that's the location of southeastern South Dakota's only emergency homeless shelter outside of Sioux Falls, making that population the easiest to account for in the area.
"We typically have a few (counted) in Mitchell, either that we're working with or that the domestic violence shelter's working with, that kind of thing," Bultje said. "But the greatest concentration for our area is Yankton, and then statewide it's Rapid City and Sioux Falls. And we'll have a smattering in our other communities."
During the Jan. 28 count, volunteers and coordinators can collect a person's basic information using an app, Bultje said. Throughout the rest of the year, the goal is to reach out to all of those identified as experiencing homelessness and connect them with resources, including those offered through the state's Coordinated Entry assessment system. Coordinated entry is the process meant to ensure all people experiencing a housing crisis have a fair and equal access to assistance based on their needs.
"The count itself is a point-in-time count," Bultje said. "They are given referrals to services, or they are given the information to enter into Coordinated Entry, and there are some folks that just simply don't want to or aren't willing to be on our list."