The Bone-Chilling, Heart-Wrenching Process Of Counting The Nation’s Homeless

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"The Bone-Chilling, Heart-Wrenching Process Of Counting The Nation’s Homeless"

It was 1 a.m., three hours since I’d last felt my toes, and the four of us stood over a man who may have been dead.

“Are you okay under there?” Catherine asked the pile of blankets tucked away in a building alcove on the corner of 23rd and I St. NW in Washington, D.C. It was the type of spot where most pedestrians wouldn’t even know a homeless person was there.

He didn’t move. She asked again. No answer. She repeated a third time. Nothing.

The three of us held our breath, looking to her for some simple explanation why this wasn’t what it seemed. Maybe he was ignoring us. After all, we were uninvited guests to his makeshift home in the middle of the night.

Maybe he had some secret way of handling five-degree temperatures, even when others might freeze to death. There are plenty of reasons why he could survive. He had a sleeping bag, a wool blanket or two, and surely — hopefully? — some warm clothes to bundle up in as well. He’d set up a few plywood boards to shield against the wind. He slept on a wooden pallet, keeping him off the freezing ground.

But there’s one inescapable fact: In the most powerful city in the richest country in the world, this man had to sleep outside on a frigid night. And if he made it through that night, chances are he’ll be sleeping there again the next.

“Here’s what we can do,” Catherine finally said, mercifully breaking our tension. “We can either try to lift his covers and see if he’s okay, or call the hypothermia van and have them come down. Does anyone have a preference?” We stared blankly, afraid to answer, lest we make the wrong choice. Finally, we asked him again if he was okay and, upon getting no response, decided to call the van. After being put on hold three times — a lot of people were calling the van to help people who may have been in danger that night — we finally got through and were told they’d send someone out shortly.

Slowly, we walked off. Maybe he was alive. We all knew he might not be.

Inside The Nationwide Homeless Census

That night, January 29th, around 250 volunteers gathered in a church basement in downtown D.C. to perform a sad but necessary service: count the number of homeless people living in the nation’s capital.

Group of volunteersThis month, cities and regions across the country are conducting an annual homeless survey, known as the Point-in-Time (PIT) count. The survey, organized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), aims to get a snapshot of our nation’s homeless population and gather data about their lives. How long have they been homeless? Are they veterans? Any medical conditions, including addiction? What are their primary reasons for being homeless?

Think of it as a national homeless census. Officials use the data to determine how well we as a country are combatting homelessness, which states and cities are making progress in reducing their homeless populations, and where we should allocate federal money moving forward. Last year, for instance, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) compiled all the PIT counts and found that 610,042 people were homeless in the United States on a given January night, a third of whom had no shelter at all.

Nearly 7,000 of those people called Washington D.C. home.

Will D.C. Reverse Its Growing Homeless Population?

Unlike the nation at large, which despite the recession has seen its overall homeless population decline by approximately 10 percent over the past seven years, the number of homeless individuals in D.C. has actually increased by nearly 20 percent in the same time span. The National Alliance to End Homelessness, using its own count, estimates that the D.C. area currently has the fifth largest homeless population in the country. Service providers are struggling to keep up with demand, especially during the recent cold spell that left shelters overflowing and forced the city to put up some needy families in hotels outside D.C. limits.

Yet the magnitude of the challenge seems to have spurred even greater fervor among D.C. homeless advocates.

To kick off this year’s count, a community meeting was held in the National City Christian Church by a consortium of local organizations with a lofty goal: ending chronic homelessness in the city by 2017. According to last year’s count, there are approximately 1,800 individuals and families who have been on the streets for years. The coalition, known as The Way Home, also set a goal of ending chronic homelessness among veterans, as Phoenix and Salt Lake City have already done, by 2015.

Speaking to volunteers before the count began, Mayor Vincent Gray (D) gave his own commitment to ending chronic homelessness among veterans in D.C., though he did not mention a target year in his speech. “Maybe the day will come in the not-so-distant future where we won’t have to count anybody,” he said. Gray, along with HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, braved the cold, took up clipboards, and helped roam the streets that evening.

Also speaking that evening were a few formerly homeless individuals who have since gotten off the streets thanks to efforts by advocates to provide people in need with permanent supportive housing. Alan Banks, a middle-aged black man with a kind gaze, tearfully recounted his days “eating out of trash cans because I was just that hungry” and “sitting on a park bench watching people go to and fro, wishing I had somewhere to go.” “I never saw homelessness coming,” Banks said, echoing a sentiment that’s likely true for nearly everyone in this country. And yet for too many, that sentiment is proven naive.

Jeff sits for a photo in his new home

Jeff sits for a photo in his new home

CREDIT: Robert Romano

Organizers also handed out a sheet detailing the success story of Jeff, a man who had been homeless for two years but just moved into his own home last week thanks to permanent supportive housing. I recognized him instantly. Jeff, a quiet man who looks like fifth-season Walter White with years of pain on his face, was a frequent guest at the soup kitchen where I volunteer. He’s always quick with a greeting in the cereal line. One snowy morning about a month ago, I asked Jeff if he was staying warm. He came close and replied in a hushed voice that he was doing well and would be moving into a place, God willing, in two weeks. “Oh wow! That’s so great to hear!” I exclaimed. Jeff’s face quickly soured. “Shh!” he responded quickly. “I don’t want the other guys to know about it.” I thought I could loudly congratulate him and that he would be thrilled. But his main concern wasn’t to be publicly congratulated. On the contrary, he was worried about his safety from others who might be jealous of the fact that he would soon be off the streets.

Jeff’s is certainly a success story of permanent supportive housing. “I just want to touch my key to make sure this is actually happening,” he said the day he moved into his new home. But for every Jeff, there are still thousands left on the streets.

Into The Cold, Clipboard In Hand

Though Washington D.C. is a relatively compact city with about 60 square miles of land, walking every inch of it in four hours is no small feat. But that was the goal of approximately 250 mostly young volunteers Wednesday night: fan out from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and count every single homeless person they could find.

TurfAnyone who has worked as field staff on a campaign would instantly recognize how the operation works. Splayed out on various tables at home base were dozens of turf maps, divided into walkable areas. After signing in, volunteers were assigned to different neighborhood teams, then further split into groups of two or three to walk with that evening. Each team was given clipboards and questionnaires. They walk their turf, then meet the rest of their team at a designated spot to turn in their completed surveys. The city would then compile them over the next couple months and release the results in the spring.

Counting, I quickly learned, is a double-edged sword. You want to find people, because it’s your job to find people. Yet you also don’t want to find people, because it was colder than an average January night in Siberia and nobody should be living outside.

Indeed, some teams found no one. There aren’t too many homeless people spending their evenings in residential Chevy Chase, after all, but volunteers still have to walk the neighborhood in order to get an accurate count. In addition, the PIT count, which incorporates both homeless people found outside and those living in shelters, is conducted in the coldest time of the year. “The idea is to do it when most people are staying in a shelter because it’s always hard to count people living outside,” Catherine Crum, the executive director of Miriam’s Kitchen, a local non-profit dedicated to ending chronic homelessness, explained to me.

Our team sets off in Foggy Bottom

Our team sets off in Foggy Bottom

Other teams, like the one I shadowed, encountered a lot of homeless people. Along with Crum, two other women, Amber Romine and Melanie Gobourne, both of whom sat on the organization’s board, and I set off a bit past 10 p.m. to scour the streets of Foggy Bottom.

Finding homeless people’s sleeping spots can be a challenging endeavor. Many people go to great lengths to find out-of-the-way locations where they’re least likely to be hassled by passersby or law enforcement. Favorite spots are behind bushes or tucked in dark corners. It was a stark reminder that for every homeless person I encounter on a given night sleeping out in the open, there are likely many more hidden from sight.

Discovering these hidden spots can have adverse consequences. One Miriam’s employee recounted a previous year when some homeless guys he knew from the morning breakfast service told him their secret sleeping location so he could find them later for the PIT survey. When he showed up that evening to count them, they inadvertently attracted the attention of some nearby security guards, who came over with flashlights and found the homeless men sleeping there. “We probably lost the guys their sleeping spot,” the employee recounted with remorse.

For the first 15 minutes, we checked behind walls and in alleyways, but struck out. A city with nearly 7,000 homeless residents, but we couldn’t find a soul.

That is, until we made it to the West End Library parking lot.

An Emergency Oasis Of Warmth

The lot was illuminated by three sets of blinking hazard lights that audibly clicked every time they turned on and off. Like finding an oasis in the middle of a desert, on this cold night we stumbled on a new D.C. initiative to help homeless people during winter: the warming buses.

Warming busesThere are many reasons why a homeless person may sleep outside on a given night instead of a shelter, but chief among them is that there simply aren’t enough shelter beds in the city to keep up with demand. In response, Mayor Gray initiated a new program this year to park unused city buses in five locations around the city and keep their engines running, welcoming anyone on board who needed to warm up for just a few minutes or stay the entire evening. They have proven quite popular. On any given cold night, hundreds of homeless people can be found on board.

The West End warming buses we stepped onto were packed. A few early arrivers had secured multiple seats to lay across. We saw many people sleep sitting up. A few made the aisles their bed.

“Excuse me, we’re doing the Point-in-Time survey. Can I ask you a couple questions?” Crum said to the first person she saw, diving in without a hint of hesitation. The man gave her a sleepy gaze, eventually rendering a denial. Unperturbed, Crum repeated the same line nearly verbatim to a man sitting across the aisle bundled in at least three winter coats, reminiscent of Randy in A Christmas Story. No response. “Don’t bother, he’s too dumb,” the first man told us loudly.

It was past midnight and most people on the bus were asleep. The survey is purposefully conducted at night, rather than earlier in the day, because most people are settled down at that point, preventing double-counting between teams. It’s not easy to wake people up; it’s even less easy to wake them up so you can ask personal questions about their poverty. Yet Crum undertook the task deftly, combining a warm approach with direct questions. It was apparent that Crum knows asking the difficult question of why people became homeless is necessary to help eradicate homelessness.

We were through the bus when she spotted a man she knew. “Hey Charlie!” Crum exclaimed. He seemed genuinely glad to see her. Charlie had been homeless for years, so he knew to expect the PIT count every January. He gladly answered her questions.

Only about half of the homeless people we encountered were willing to respond to the survey. Non-responders are still counted for the overall number, but less is known about their particular situation. Volunteers were provided with $10 McDonald’s gift cards and hand warmers to offer as compensation for those who participated, but it was unclear how much those gifts helped.

Staying warm inside the bus

Staying warm inside the bus

What did help was Crum’s history with those living on the streets. She’s been at Miriam’s for a decade and been working with the homeless far longer than that. Hers is a friendly, familiar face. People know they can trust her. As a result, they were far more likely to respond when she approached them with a clipboard on a cold January night. And even among those who couldn’t be woken, Crum surveyed their faces and jotted down their names for later. “I know most of these people,” she told me. “I’ve got their information from years past, so I can enter it later.”

Before we left the first bus, Charlie took my arm and pulled me aside, saying, “She’s a real nice lady, you know.”

We counted approximately 50 people on the three buses, departing around 12:30 to cover the rest of our turf. I couldn’t tell if the temperature had bottomed out in the half hour we’d been on the warm buses, or if I’d simply forgotten. Like darkness before dawn, cold fingers seems to sting the most right before they go numb, but mine refused to cross over the precipice. I tried to note this on my pad, but the temperature had dropped so low that the ink in my pen froze. It was cold.

As we continued down G Street, I glanced at Melanie’s clipboard. Under the “reason for homelessness” box on the last questionnaire, it read simply, “No job — felony.” For many people, poverty can quickly become a cycle that is nearly impossible to escape. I felt a wave of anguish from those three words. Is it even possible for someone to climb out of poverty when he’s forever branded with the scarlet letter of “felon”?

The search for more homeless people continued through alleyways and under bridges for the next 45 minutes. It was mostly fruitless. Thankfully, most folks had taken up refuge in a shelter or a bus.

We eventually returned to home base, surveys in hand. I pride myself in my ability to handle the elements, but I was shivering uncontrollably. My mind stayed with the motionless man at the corner of 23rd and I. Being out for any portion of that night was dangerous; staying out for the whole thing felt like a death wish. In one week earlier this month, at least five homeless people froze to death as temperatures plunged. My stomach nagged, wondering if I’d been witness to a sixth, wondering if there was more I should have done.

I emailed Crum the next day to see if she’d heard an update. “I did check,” she replied. “This morning, the blanket was neatly folded and there were three gym bags neatly stacked. Whoever it was is safe!”

All photos by Scott Keyes unless otherwise noted.

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