New York City has an estimated population of 8.2 million people. Planning a count of individuals and families that are homeless in the nation’s most populous city is a major undertaking, and this year’s Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) marks the ninth annual citywide count. I was honored to join volunteers from across the city in being a part of HOPE 2013.
The morning of January 28th started off with snow showers that by midday had turned to sleet and finally rain. When volunteers assembled to embark on the nation’s largest count of homeless individuals, it was 35 degrees; no snow or rain, but raw and chilly. I arrived at the P.S. 116, Mary Lindley Murray Elementary on East 33rd, just after 10 pm. Within an hour the cafeteria/gymnasium had filled up with over 150 volunteers. P.S. 116 was one of 28 sites around the city that would train and manage the over 3,000 volunteers who would cover 1,550 areas that had been designated by city planners.
Staff from the city’s Department of Homeless Services briefed the volunteers on the business of counting individuals without shelter on NYC streets. The 150 volunteers at PS 116 were broken down into about 25 teams. Teams would be deployed to street level destinations as well as to underground metro stations and end of the line subway stops. Our team of seven volunteers included the City’s Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond and a group of eager and enthusiastic college students from St. John’s University. We were assigned a four block area in Herald Square near Madison Square Garden. Another group at our training table included Julie Irwin from the New York City Office of Veterans Affairs and John Kuhn from the U.S. Department Veterans Affairs were assigned to Penn Station.
Joe Hallmark of the Manhattan Outreach Consortium, a program of Goddard Riverside Community Center, served as our Team Leader. Joe is an experienced outreach worker who has been helping the city’s homeless for over eight years. He told me he remembers a time when we expected individuals to be completely clean and sober before there was any offer of permanent housing assistance. “Those days now feel like the dark ages,” said Joe. “We have made tremendous progress in adapting our services and expectations to better serve the clients.”
We took to the streets just after midnight and the young volunteers quickly began approaching those who were passing by to ask if they would be willing to take a survey. Many complied and seemed pleased that the City was taking the time to check on people’s housing status. Almost all of these individuals responded they had a place to stay that evening.
As we continued on, we turned the corner on West 31st, which presented another scenario. There under a building’s scaffolding tucked close to the foundation were a line of seven individuals wrapped inside cardboard and blankets. All were asleep. We heeded our instructions not to disturb anyone that had already bedded down for the evening. Our team huddled and marked a survey for each: “Asleep” and then, “Yes” for “Do you believe this person is homeless?” As we prepared to move on, one gentleman raised his head above the blanket and asked, “Am I in trouble?”
We assured him that he was not in trouble and quickly made an offer to take him inside to a shelter. He said he would be okay staying outside. We left him with a card that listed resource agencies that could assist him the next day or any day when he was ready to accept help. Commissioner Diamond asked Joe to return to West 31st St. The Outreach Teams run by Goddard Riverside Community Center will continue to conduct outreach daily to engage those staying there and working towards finding them a safe place to stay indoors when they feel ready to do so.
After that encounter Joe spoke to the reporter from a television news station that was traveling with our team. The reporter asked a common question: “Why did he not accept help”?
Joe explained that it was a matter of building a trusting relationship with each individual. Joe, speaking into the camera said, “We get to know them and understand their special needs,” further explaining that in his experience, over time many of those currently living outside will accept services and move inside. This individual outreach is one of the ways the city has made tremendous progress in reducing the number of individuals that are chronically homeless in the last six years.
As we closed out the evening on our way back to P.S. 116, Joe and I talked about how the work has changed. He credits the city for its leadership in establishing critical partnerships and for setting the tone to move toward a Housing First strategy. “It’s been a revolution in how we now work with the chronically homeless; it is very different now.”
Youth Count! in New York City
Before heading over to P.S. 116, I visited Covenant House on the lower west side of Manhattan. Covenant House is a well-known youth service agency providing a range of medical and social supports for runaway and homeless youth. The NYC Youth Count was one of nine study cities that had agreed to model outreach and data collection that would inform the national strategy for ending youth homelessness.
Organized by the NYC Coalition on the Continuum of Care (NYC CoC) and theNYC Department of Youth and Community Development, Covenant House served as one of 14 youth drop-in and supportive housing sites participating in NYC Youth Count.
Youth Count! volunteers arrived at 10 pm to receive the instructions and training needed to administer a survey that would be completed for all youth that came to the drop-in centers across the City. The survey asked 29 questions including, “Where did you sleep last night?” and “What were the reasons that caused you to become homeless?”
At Covenant House, I met three volunteers from the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, a child advocacy organization founded in 1944 that sent volunteers to sites across the City. The women listened carefully to the guidance provided by Nancy Downing from Covenant House and Edline Jacquet from the Supportive Housing Network of New York .
Following the Youth Count!, Nicole Branca of the Network and co-chair of the NYC CCoC reported that about a dozen youth came to Covenant House and that over almost 200 youth showed up at the drop-in sites across the City. It was clear that all the youth were eager to tell their stories. These 200 youth will be counted along with the sheltered youth and those unsheltered that were identified through HOPE. Organizers and volunteers say the experience was heartwarming as youth were provided with immediate assistance, many staying through the night, as well as being connected with services.