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Survey seeks to uncover the complicated stories of homelessness

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A toy rolls down the sidewalk in the rain at the homeless encampment
A toy rolls down the sidewalk in the rain at the homeless encampment off Hiawatha Avenue on Thursday, Sept. 20 in Minneapolis.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR News

Thousands of volunteers will fan out across the state Thursday, from emergency shelters to the streets, gathering information on Minnesota's homeless population.

Wilder Research has been conducting the survey every three years since 1991 to compile an in-depth picture of the challenges people face finding housing.

"We learn a lot about what the current conditions are for people experiencing homelessness; what are the particular barriers that they're facing to getting into housing, sort of what they're struggling with," said Michelle Decker Gerrard, Wilder's senior research manager. "The population changes over time, and so we have this great trendline because we've been doing this study this same way for almost 30 years."

Gerrard said the 2015 survey showed the homeless population is getting older and experiencing more chronic health problems. A positive trend, she said, was a drop in homeless veterans.

The 24-hour effort does provide a count of the homeless population — in October 2015 it was about 9,300. But Gerrard says because interviewers face challenges finding all of the "hidden" homeless who don't use shelters, that's likely an undercount.

She says the real value of the survey lies in the depth of information collected. Each interview typically takes 30 to 45 minutes.

"It's complicated and it's individualized, so there's no single one story of homelessness. And so we want to tell all those stories and get at it from a bunch of different angles," she said. "And so that's why we ask such in-depth questions, because there's no one-stop solution for the whole population."

The comprehensive nature of the interviews also means it takes time to process the survey. Gerrard expects the first of several reports from this year's canvass to come out in March.