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Jobs in the Delta are scarce, government services are limited and the nonprofit infrastructure is thin, Ms. Maharrey said. The burden of helping the desperate falls largely to churches, neighbors and community groups.
The Point-in-Time Count relies on these local ranks and their network of sources — court clerks, gas station attendants, motel owners, police officers, longtime contacts within the homeless community itself. On cold nights, those seeking shelter find sanctuary anywhere they can, in cars, abandoned homes and vacant strip malls. The only way to really know who is staying where is to live in these communities and know the people firsthand.
The fact that the rural homeless population is harder to see is what makes the yearly census so important, Ms. Maharrey said. “When I talk to other communities, they find it difficult to believe that there’s homelessness in rural Mississippi, or that there’s homelessness in rural America,” she said. “The Point-in-Time Count gives us a reference point.”
In Greenwood, Miss., population around 14,000, the team drove into a wooded lot where Donjua Parris, 43, had been living with her partner since the summer. Four years ago, her partner lost his maintenance job at the apartment building where they lived, she said, and when they were evicted, her family wouldn’t take them in. Ms. Lukes ran through the census questions with Ms. Parris, who shivered in the cold, then he asked her where they should go to find others.
“There is a place,” she said, gesturing toward an area on the riverside of a nearby levee, where she said a pregnant woman was living. “She needs help.”
A few minutes later, Mr. Lukes had climbed down the levee and found a campsite abandoned. If the woman had been there, she was gone now.