02/11/2013 - Homelessness in Washington, DC: Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Fellows participate in DC’s Point-In-Time Count

On the evening of Thursday, January 31, I participated in DC’s Point-In-Time (PIT) count with two of my colleagues from this year’s 2012-2013 Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute fellowship cohort, Daniel Lind and Pam Diaz.

(Pictured from left to right: Aurelia De La Rosa Aceves, Health Graduate Fellow; Daniel Lind, STEM Graduate Fellow; and, Pam Diaz, Public Policy Fellow.)

Though the PIT count takes place every year, this was the first time Daniel, Pam, and I participated in the event. We prepared for the night by attending a training session earlier in the month led by The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, DC’s Continuum of Care PIT count organizer. However, nothing can quite prepare you for the moment when you walk in to the designated PIT count volunteer meeting area and observe the overwhelming amount of people from the community who have come to help count the homeless on their Thursday night. It is both humbling and heartwarming to be a part of such an important and community-building event.

Once all the volunteers had met their teammates and team leaders for the night, we had the pleasure to hear U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovanand U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki speak about the Obama Administration’s commitment to end homelessness in this country. They explained the essential role of the PIT count: in addition to informing resource planning, both Secretaries spoke of this work as our means to identify a problem, address it, and document our progress addressing it. Secretary Shinseki said it well: “We can’t solve a problem we cannot see.” 

(Pictured to the right: VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and Dr. Susan Angell, Executive Director of VA's Homeless Veterans Initiatives, survey a man in DC's Union Station. Photo Courtesy Laura Zeilinger.)

Shortly after the Secretaries’ words, all the teams of volunteers dispersed throughout our nation’s capital to count people experiencing homelessness. It seemed the temperature dropped a degree with every conversation we had with a person sleeping on the street that night. First our glove-covered hands went numb, and then the cold traveled to our sock-warmed toes as we walked Dupont Circle and Embassy Row. We were told that we probably would not see more than three individuals on the street given our neighborhood, but we actually spoke with about eight individuals. Their stories explaining their homelessness ranged as much as their mental states, whether it was losing a job, difficulty reentering society from a prison release, or just trying not to intrude on family members in the area.

While some individuals were concerned for their own survival on the street day after day, especially on such a cold night, one man—we will refer to him as Paul—expressed concern for others on the street. Even though Paul was on his way to CVS, he agreed to answer our survey without hesitation. He had a slight cough, so I handed him a couple cough drops from my bag to hold him over during the survey. Paul has lived on the street for over five years, and does not use a shelter because he believes a shelter would force him to part with all his personal items. After answering all the survey questions, he asked that we check on a woman who only recently began sleeping on the street near his spot. He told us that the woman spoke to no one and seemed pretty scared to be out on the street. He advised that I speak to her instead of Daniel, because hearing the voice of a female might make her feel more comfortable. As Paul walked away from us on that street corner, he left us with these questions, “You know, when was the last time she actually got to talk with another woman? Have a conversation?”

As our time conducting the PIT count neared its end, we were confronted with how fortunate we were to be one step closer to our own homes. We faced the reality that we would go home to our warm beds while the people we spoke with only hours earlier would be sleeping on sidewalks, park benches, and at bus stops. It is something that takes place every night, but we were so much more aware this night. This night, we knew the people experiencing homelessness by name.

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent or reflect those of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI).

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