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(INDIANAPOLIS) – Homelessness in Marion County has jumped to its highest level in 15 years.

The federally required annual count of the homeless found 1,928 people in shelters or on the streets, up 21% from last year. But while the shelter count was handled the same way as always, volunteers spread the work of talking to the unsheltered across five nights because of the pandemic, instead of the usual one-night count.

Indiana University researchers say the methodology change means it’s likely the street numbers for past years are too low. But the shelter count, unaffected by the change, jumped 19% to its highest level in seven years.

Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, executive director of the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention, says it’s likely the pandemic played a role in the higher numbers. She says families who in other years might have temporarily stayed with friends were less likely to have that option. And Marion County added about 700 shelter beds during the pandemic by temporarily converting five hotels to house the homeless.

Haring-Cozzi says the annual “point in time” count is one of several data tools which track homelessness trends to guide how to best target resources. She says this year’s survey showed about the same number of homeless families as before, but the size of those families was bigger. She says it indicates a need to beef up family shelters and affordable multibedroom housing.

Haring-Cozzi says the survey again indicates African-Americans make up half Indy’s homeless population. But she says they’re far more likely than whites to be in shelters rather than on the street, an indication to focus housing resources at shelters in order to reach people.

Statewide numbers should follow in a few weeks.