One day before starting the official count of unsheltered people living in Bucks County, volunteer Deborah Neidhart asked a staff member at one of the Central Bucks libraries if she knew of any homeless people in the area. Neidhart said the woman was shocked and denied that there were any homeless people at all in the area.
"If you are not exposed to it, if you don't see it, then you really don't know that it exists," she said. "It's more invisible in Central Bucks than anywhere else in the county."
It's a common misconception that Neidhart encounters, that only the lower part of Bucks County has a homeless population. It's a myth that Neidhart needs to shatter if she and the rest of her team hope to get an accurate count.
"The camps are very centralized in Lower Bucks, and Upper Bucks has a good word-of-mouth network of libraries and grocery stores, where everybody knows where the camps are," said Neidhart. "Here, we spend all afternoon beating the bush looking for needles in a haystack."
Neidhart is a member of one of the three teams that spent 24 hours last week performing the homeless count for Bucks County. When the numbers are gathered up, they are reported to the Housing and Urban Development Department, which in turn determines how much federal and state assistance the county receives for housing programs.
Between noon Jan. 30 and noon Jan. 31, the teams counted a total of 153 unsheltered people, including 62 family members and 62 single adults that were on a waiting list for emergency shelter in Lower Bucks.
The teams also counted 418 individuals in emergency shelters or transitional housing, for a grand total of 571, an increase from last year's count of 422.
Emma Weisser, a representative from the Community and Business Development department, credited better resources and stronger information gathering as the reason for the rise.
"The increase in people counted is more representative of our improved abilities in gathering and reporting on information," she stated. "As opposed to an actual increase in the number of homeless or at-risk persons in the county."
Neidhart and her team travelled to well-known encampment sites in Central Bucks, including a camp in the woods near the Warminster SEPTA station that had been abandoned after a fire last year.
In New Hope, they encountered a homeless man who lives in his truck. They informed him of a Code Blue shelter that had been set up at Trinity Episcopal Church in Buckingham, but he opted to stay on his own.
"That's pride," said Allen Johnson, team leader for the Central Bucks count. "A lot of these people don't want to accept help. It's a shame for them to be out there in the cold."
The Code Blue shelter program is a volunteer-run system that offers to the homeless a warm place and a meal to help escape the bitter cold for at least one night. One location gets placed on call for a month-long shift, with volunteers ready to accept guests when the temperatures dip.
In Central Bucks, the February location is the Doylestown Presbyterian Church, maintained by the Coalition to Shelter the Homeless.