02/13/2013 - The People Behind the Count: A PIT Count Reflection from HUD’s New Hampshire Field Office Director Greg Carson

It’s been more than 30 years since I headed outdoors in sub-zero weather at 2 in the morning; on the other side of the world along the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Tonight, like those nights so many years ago, I am surrounded by a group of young people all determined to accomplish an important mission and all motivated by a sense of duty.

As the HUD Field Office Director in New Hampshire, each year for the last several years I received a copy of the results of the national Point-in-Time count and while I have been diligent in sharing that information with decision makers, I have not had a personal sense of the people behind the numbers.

Tonight we gather at the basement floor level offices of local transitional housing provider Families in Transition (FIT). It’s early, it’s cold, and the room is filled with volunteers from various non-profits and state agency service providers. By far, most of the teams who will soon be walking the streets on Manchester are between 22 and 30 years old. Yes, there are a few of us more seasoned professionals, but we are the exception to the rule.

As a “newbie” to the PIT count team, I am assigned to work with a young man who is about the same age of my oldest child and has several years of experience under his belt. The other members of my team are volunteers whose daytime jobs are with local housing service providers. Tagging along with our team is a reporter from NPR.

We all bundle up into our warmest clothes and hop into a car for a short ride across town to our designated counting area. Oddly enough, we pull up and park at the front door of my office in the local federal building, bringing the experience a little closer to home. After a minute or two of pulling on gloves, hats and scarves our team lead reviews the rules of the counting process. No shining lights in car windows, no disturbing people who are sleeping, and most importantly not engaging people unless you are one of the social workers. If we find someone we are to report it to the team leader and they will get a social worker to see if they can get the person to a shelter. By now it is -3 degrees.

We spend the next 3 hours walking a well-defined grid area, paying special attention to areas that are well known to both our team and those experiencing homelessness; mostly foreclosed homes and buildings that have been abandoned. We spend time walking around the outside of the buildings; most with “No Trespassing” signs and several with large red “X”s placed by the city indicating an abandoned building. Many are partially boarded up, a few too dangerous to enter just by looking at them. Although we look for signs of recent activity, we don’t find too many people.

We pass the time first talking about what’s happening at our respective agencies, everyone eager to tell me of their successes and the need for additional federal dollars. The NPR reporter is very engaged asking questions about the Continuum of Care, how the funding process works, and a lot about the numbers. How many people; how many veterans; how many children; how much money? As always there is too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

At 2:24 am someone in our group notices some footprints leading up to a partially boarded basement door and asks our team leader if she should investigate further. He starts toward the door and I tell him not to bother as no one has been in or out for at least three days. And after a few odd looks from the group I explain how the tracks have melted and refrozen and the last days above freezing was more than three days ago so the tracks can’t be fresh…the military training is sometimes a help when looking for people who don’t want to be found.

Over the three hours we only come across three or four people out on the street which is a good sign that the local service agencies have done well to get people into one of the local shelters. We hear via radio around 3:30 am the largest shelter has just opened its overflow facility and to point people in that direction.

At 5:30 we head back to the car and back to FIT’s offices for a warm-up and something to eat. My estimate is our team, like the other teams, covered about four to five miles of walking in sub-zero temperatures. And while there are plenty of rosy cheeks and hands wrapped around coffee mugs, everyone seems to be encouraged and ready to head back out to finish the count.

I take some of this time to talk to volunteers from the other groups: there are college interns, AmeriCorps volunteers, junior staff from the various non-profits, and a few friends who are “just helping out.” Again, I can’t help but notice the compassion and enthusiasm among this group of young adults.

As teams are divided back up and some of the routes on the map are discussed I ask if anyone is assigned to look out by the reservoir on the very outskirts of town. No one seems to realize one end of the reservoir is actually located within the city limits. I get the assignment along with my team leader from earlier to head out in the car to take a look. Much to his surprise we find three groups of people in cars parked at various spots near the lake. On the way back into the downtown area we take a short drive around the nearby industrial park and find another person sleeping in their car at the end of a dead end road. And while it’s hard to tell exactly, this side trip will add three to six people onto the count for tonight and will now be part of the count in the coming years.

It is nearly 6:30 am by the time we get back to FIT for the second time. People are packing up to head home; although like me, many are going to head to work after a short refresh at home. I’m a bit tired but I feel I was really able to contribute to making the process better with our trip out to the lake. More importantly, I will take two very important lessons home with me this morning. The first is a renewed sense that the PIT count is about real people (families, teenagers, veterans and children) and not just a number to be used in a performance matrix in Washington. The second is that there is a group of young people who are willing to make a commitment and have the passion for helping others, illustrated by those who I worked with that night. It warms my soul.

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