The most extensive survey of Rhode Island's homeless population to date - with questions ranging from mental health history to whether their daily lives include activities beyond just surviving - aims to figure out not just how many there are, but how they ended up on the streets.
Nearly 400 volunteers will spread out across the state Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights to find homeless people and conduct the 60-question survey. Past surveys simply counted those sleeping outside and in emergency shelters, but advocates hope the new effort will help them connect the homeless with the most appropriate services and housing options.
"People look at homelessness and they think it's a massive, intractable problem," said Jake Maguire, spokesman for Community Solutions, the national nonprofit that developed the survey. "Intuitively, they think there isn't a solution. But that's not true."
A solution can't come soon enough for homeless advocates. Seven homeless people have died on the streets so far this year, said Jim Ryczek, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.
Rhode Island is among 67 states and communities selected to participate in Zero: 2016, a campaign by Community Solutions to end veteran and chronic homelessness in the next two years.
Last year, about 4,450 people were homeless in Rhode Island, according to state data. Of that total, about 800 were considered chronically homeless and nearly 300 were veterans.
The number of homeless grew by about 1,000 people from 2007 to 2012 before decreasing in 2013 as the state's economy began to rebound, said Providence College professor Eric Hirsch, an expert on homelessness.
Hirsch, who will oversee the count at the state's three largest shelters, said the survey will help homeless advocates make a better case to legislators for funding permanent housing and services.
"It's no longer abstract," Hirsch said. "It's a different way of approaching it."
The state approved a $130 million plan to end homelessness in 2012, but Hirsch said it has not been fully funded and the state still needs new permanent affordable housing units.
The survey poses a series of questions about a person's background, medical care, general well-being and daily life. It asks, among other questions, whether respondents experienced childhood trauma, if they owe anyone money and if they have "planned activities each day other than just surviving that bring you happiness and fulfillment."
Maguire said Community Solutions will help the campaign participants analyze the survey data to figure out the best strategies, whether it's by streamlining bureaucracy for housing placements, using resources more effectively or connecting with other municipalities dealing with the same issues.
"The benefit of doing something together is that we will develop one voice that will help us draw attention to the fact that this is a problem we can solve," he said.
In a previous campaign, Maguire said, Community Solutions surpassed its goal of housing 100,000 homeless people in four years nationwide.