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A County Tries Again to Count the Rural Homeless

After an unsuccessful attempt to identify their unsheltered population in January, one Pennsylvania county hopes for better results in the summer.

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Out of sight in January, the unsheltered residents of Franklin County are easier to find when the weather is warm.
(Photographs by David Kidd/Governing)
Coming from near and far, people are gathering on a warm July evening to count the homeless population in and around Chambersburg, Pa. Situated 17 miles north of the Maryland border and an hour’s drive west of the state capitol in Harrisburg, the small city is the seat of Franklin County, named after the founding father whose statue stands atop the local courthouse. The Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental road, runs right through the middle of town.

By six o’clock, 20 volunteers have arrived at the low-slung, featureless building that houses the county’s homeless and prisoner re-entry services. A promised dinner is delayed because Jordan Conner, a deputy coroner and tonight’s chef, is locked out of his house where all the food happens to be. His wife Misty, the county’s “housing navigation coordinator,” is in charge of tonight’s count. It only takes a few minutes for Misty to go home and come back with her husband and the food.

Soon after the Conners return, a mix of county employees and volunteers — many of them formerly unsheltered — are lined up in a conference room to sample the buffet. Among them are Scott Faith and his mixed beagle Delilah. Scott and Delilah were homeless over the past winter and spring. “Nobody knows what it’s like until it happens to them,” he says. He credits Misty Conner for getting him and his service dog off the street and into an apartment. They are here tonight to return the favor.
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Volunteers meet at Franklin County’s housing and reentry offices before heading out to count.
Harley enthusiast and leader of his own motorcycle ministry, James “Billboard” Rice was one of the first to arrive. He is a regular contributor to Misty’s mission to help the homeless. A large portion of the wipes, paper towels, body wash and bug spray that the county makes available are donated by Rice and his group. He’s looking forward to getting outside and finding people to talk to. But not until he finishes off a few of Jordan Conner’s brownies.

After making short work of the hot dogs, hamburgers and macaroni salad, everyone heads for a side door, outfitted in matching green fluorescent vests. Those who need help are schooled on the use of a new phone app designed to aid in the count. Paper instructions are available to anyone not willing or able to use their phone.

Misty Conner is stationed by the door as they file past into the bright late afternoon sun. She sends them off with a few final instructions. “There’s ponchos if you want to give out those,” she says. “And bug spray. Use the app as much as you can. If you use the paper, leave them on my desk and I will enter them tomorrow. Turn on your location on your phone.”

Soon they are gone, in cars and on foot, having divided themselves up into groups of four.
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It can sometimes be difficult to find people who are trying to stay out of sight.

A Second Attempt

Tonight isn’t the first time Franklin County has tried to count its homeless population. An attempt was made late in January, coinciding with the nationwide point-in-time count that’s conducted annually. “This year sucked,” says Misty. “It was horrible. A snowy, cold, wintry mess.” There were several falls as the counters made their way across icy fields and frozen hillsides. One volunteer suffered a broken arm, requiring surgery. He is not here for tonight’s count.

For all their efforts, not one homeless person was identified that night in January. Misty surmises that everyone had gone to the local shelters or otherwise found a place to stay inside. She hopes that tonight’s warm-weather count will reveal the numbers of unsheltered people that she knows are out there.

“Homelessness is getting worse,” Misty says. “A lot of the eviction protections have stopped after COVID. I’m the one that gives out the sleeping bags and the tents. Last August I gave out 41. That’s why we decided we were going to do a summer count. We went through a hundred some tents in a year.”
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Many unsheltered people are known to stay in and around the storage units near the county’s offices.
Rachael Staley and Marian McKay are in the group that starts off combing the sea of storage units that are arrayed behind and adjacent to the county offices. Rachael has recently received a degree in criminal justice from Wilson College in Chambersburg. She is hoping to land a job with the county’s prisoner re-entry program. Marian is a recovering alcoholic and at one time homeless. Like the other volunteers, she is here to do what she can to help. “They said they need some people,” she says. “I said count me in.”

The group spends 45 minutes scouring the wooded perimeter and checking row after row of orange garage doors. The only person they encounter is a lone man tending to his stored belongings. The group then decides to drive over to another location where the homeless are known to congregate. Thirty minutes later they are picking their way through a wooded area next to a Cracker Barrel parking lot. They find recently filled dog food dishes and some empty bottles, but no people. A lone, worn-out car is parked on the lot’s fringes, facing the trees. A look inside confirms that it is someone’s home.
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Volunteer Marian McKay was at one time homeless. She is here tonight to repay the help she’s received over the years.
Three miles to the north, Misty leads her group into the town’s public library. Viewing a security monitor, the librarian at the front desk suggests they check the upper level. Once upstairs, Misty stops to talk to a young man looking at videos on a laptop. “If you need anything just let us know,” she says, offering him some flyers and forms. “We’re across from Sheetz [gas station] if you ever need anything.”

Across the room, one of the volunteers has found September, a young woman widely known to be without a home. September has wrapped herself in a blanket against the chill of the building’s air conditioning. “Are you staying with family now?” the volunteer asks.

“No,” says September. “I refuse to stay with them. When I was staying in the motel with them, I was being treated like dirt. I was being abused. All that stuff. I’m not going back there.”

They make plans for September to stop by Misty’s office to pick up some supplies. “All right, madam. I’ll see you on Thursday. If you need anything else, you let me know.”
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A volunteer listens to September, a young woman who spends her days at the public library.
The last stop of the night for Misty’s group is a local park where they hope to find her friend Norman, one of three homeless men in the area with that name. “A lot of mornings I’ll come through here and he’s sprawled out on the picnic table,” she says. As darkness settles over the park, Misty spots Norman in the distance. He waits where he is, as bikers, walkers and kids on scooters zip past.

Happy to have an audience, Norman regales the group with tales of his recent exploits and shares his plans for a new tattoo. He and Misty banter back and forth before he declines her offer of help, preferring to stay outside for the time being.

While Norman holds court, volunteer Rusty Rouzer listens patiently off to one side. Rusty has twice lost his home and family. Once when his wife died and again when his mother passed away. “I told Misty I was tired of living out in the woods all the time,” he says. “She helped me get an apartment. Now I’m giving back.”
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The last to be counted tonight, Norman keeps Misty and her volunteers informed and entertained.
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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