A Long Cold Night

written by Emanuel Cavallaro
February 1, 2013

Last night, some Alliance staff and I joined thousands of volunteers nationwide who participated this month in the 2013 Point-in-Time Count. (This year’s count was unique because Continuums of Care (CoCs) are required to report the numbers of youth aged 18 to 24 they encountered.) The purpose of the count is to reach an accurate estimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness, so that  HUD can target funding for services where the need is greatest.

We were in good company. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki joined the hundred and fifty so volunteers in the Scott Hall of the National City Christian Church, where the volunteers convened the night of the DC count. Addressing the volunteers at tables laden with city maps, pens, and granola bars, as photographers snapped photos of him, he told us he was a problem-solver.

“I learned a long time ago I couldn’t solve a problem I can’t see,” he said. “We can end homelessness. Just give us the resources and we’ll show you. You (the volunteers) help us argue for those resources.”

(Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was there as well, as the Washington Post noted.)

And with that we set out into the 30-degree night in groups of two and three, armed with clipboards and survey forms, as well as McDonalds gift cards and lists of services and hotlines, to wander our designated areas of the city from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. looking for unsheltered people experiencing homelessness, so that we could talk to them and learn their names and circumstances.

All of us had received some basic training a couple weeks earlier. We were advised that, to get answers to survey questions we should to engage people in a conversation and use non-judgmental language. For instance, instead of saying, “We’re counting homeless people,” say, “We’re out looking for people who are living outside. Can we talk to you?” Instead of saying, “Are you disabled?” say, “Have you seen a doctor lately? Are you in need of medical services?”

The idea is to let the conversation flow naturally. And if you are patient and listen closely, we were told, they’ll usually provide answers to the survey on their own.

However, my team, which included D’Arcy Klingle, the Alliance’s director of meetings and events, and Baylee Crone, vice president of operations and programs for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, didn’t get much opportunity to put this into practice. We were assigned the National Mall, much of which is open and largely lacking in the kind of semi-sheltered areas people might seek out for protection from the elements. It’s also patrolled regularly by the police and rangers of the National Park Service. We went hours without seeing anyone.

It’s a beautiful area, especially at night, filled with monuments. Our journey took us by the Korean War Memorial, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and several others. With the Washington Monument always in the distance, and the moonlight shimmering on the Tidal Basin, the trip began to seem like a long, bizarre, cold sight-seeing tour.

We encountered a security guard, who told us about a man he knew who had been sleeping under a bridge, but who had recently been struck by a car and killed. We ran into a Park Ranger, who told us that people would sometimes seek shelter in park bathrooms. We accompanied her when she locked them for the night. Opening the door of each bathroom she shouted, “Park Services! Closing!”

As we passed I took a photo of a quote from the FDR memorial, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

I thought it was particularly apt.

Around 1 a.m. we were finally circling back. We had covered the entire area without having counted a single homeless person. Then I spotted a form shambling along the sidewalk across the street from us. A woman wrapped in a blanket.

As we crossed the street to speak to her, she gave no sign that she saw us. Baylee approached first, saying “hi” and attempting to explain what we were doing, but the woman kept walking. Baylee turned around said, “She didn’t acknowledge me. She didn’t even look at me.”

I approached her. She was walking so fast that I had to run to get ahead of her. She wore flip-flips, and her blanket had a large picture of a Panda Bear on it. It was the kind of outfit that would look more appropriate on someone curling up on a couch in front of a television. She was young, her hair was matted. As I spoke she stared straight ahead as if unaware of my presence.

“I know you probably don’t want to talk to me, and I understand that,” I began. “But we’re out here talking to people who are living outside. We’re just trying to learn what we can do.” As we neared an intersection, I fumbled in my coat pocket for the list of services and hotlines. “I have a list of resources that can help you” I said. She stepped off the curb into the middle of the street. We didn’t follow.

On the survey form we wrote, Jane Doe. Age: between 18 and 24. Location: 17th and Constitution. We checked the box next to, “He or she was asleep and/or did not respond when spoken to.”

In the past, many Point-in-Time counts have failed to account for unaccompanied youth age 24 or under who are homeless. The new requirement to count youth this year should get us closer to finally understanding how many youth are experiencing homelessness.

On that same street we encountered two men, one of whom was sleeping, seated on a bench. He wore a mummy bag, and he had a battered piece of luggage tied to a dolly in front of him. He hid beneath an umbrella large enough to cover his head and much of his upper body. Baylee had to kneel down to peak under the umbrella. “Excuse me,” she said. “Sir? Sir? Can you give me a sign that you hear me?”

I knew he had awoke when the umbrella shook. Baylee entered into a quiet conversation with him. D’Arcy stood by with the clipboard and pen, noting his responses. Baylee offered him food and a McDonalds gift card. He wanted neither, but accepted the list of services and hotlines. As we walked away, Baylee said, “I wish he would have taken the food.”

I was curious. “What did he look like?”

“He looked young.”

I don’t know how many people volunteers counted that night. Last year, the number for the District of Columbia’s CoC was 6,954, which placed DC eighth in terms of CoCs of major cities. I’m hopeful, though not confident, that the number has gone down.