02/21/2013 - HOPE: A Word on New York City’s PIT Count from Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond
HOPE, our annual unsheltered street survey, is a huge effort every year involving thousands of volunteers throughout New York City. We usually plan months ahead of time but with Hurricane Sandy requiring our full attention for most of the end of 2012, we had to cram four months work into four weeks. It is serious business and we take great care to set up the system with precision, mapping the areas with the city’s experts, arranging for over 400 police officers to be involved and working with a community college to hire and train over 200 decoys- persons who act as homeless individuals as a quality control measure. Based on the number of decoys discovered during the survey, we can ensure the accuracy of the final street estimate number. But it also should be fun and so we make sure to include in the planning thousands of gallons of coffee and water, pretzels and energy bars and thousands of t-shirts available to every volunteer who completes the survey.
(Pictured: Bob Pulster, USICH Regional Coordinator and Seth Diamond, NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner)
The nights of the estimate have varied from year to year—some balmy, some so cold you could barely take your hands out of your pocket, and this year, relatively cold. No matter what though, the street survey moves forward. My night always begins at St. John’s University early in the evening in Queens. They are a wonderful partner and send hundreds of students to us throughout the city to participate in the survey. I visit them on campus to thank them personally, but also, seeing the young people ready and willing to go is energizing for me and my staff. This year their mascot, Johnny Thunderbird, joined us for an extra special send off. I’m not sure what area he ended up surveying.
I work primarily out of a site on Manhattan’s east side. While every year brings a different combination of people, from West Point cadets, to our outreach providers, to local neighbors who just want to lend a helping hand, I am always encouraged by the heartfelt spirit behind those who are there to help the City. When I arrive those who do this annually are getting to know the first timers and I enjoy hearing the stories about how they got involved; whether it was an interaction with someone who was homeless, a report on the news that caught their attention, or just coming along with a friend. Sitting there talking to people and hearing their similar story threads you realize that even in a city of more than 8 million people, HOPE is a community event that brings New Yorkers together.
After being led through skillful training by our district captains, we head out into the evening. We are led by an experienced outreach coordinator, Joe Hallmark, from one of our five City contracted outreach providers, Goddard Riverside. Each borough in New York has a Department of Homeless Services contracted provider who works with the street homeless population to bring them into housing. Joe talks to us about the challenges not just of this night, but every night in working with street homeless individuals. I am joined by Bob Pulster of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and a group of St. John’s students. The students are similar in age to my eldest son and many of their thoughts and comments remind me of conversations I might have with him. The students’ mood is light, but contemplative, and while we stop everyone we encounter, most are people returning from dinner or a night out and have a place to go. The mood changes quickly though on one block, where under some newly erected scaffolding, as we see a group of people sleeping. This is why we are here and who we want to help: that is quickly clear to all of us. Our leader Joe explains the challenges of getting people to come inside and has incredible knowledge both of the geography of the area and the personal stories of many who we see. Sadly, Joe tells us it is not the first night these individuals have spent on the street, but he and his teams have been working aggressively with them to help them accept housing and move towards a better life. It’s hard work but hopefully tonight is one more step along the path.
We finish shortly thereafter and head back to our organizing point at the school. It’s late-- earlier for the students maybe than for the rest of us-- but I think a fulfilling evening for everyone. We compile our results and get HOPE 2013 t-shirts for our efforts. The students and other members of the team head out, and the city is tremendously grateful for their participation. The students look at the t-shirts as they walk away, murmuring the slogan on the back, “Make It Count.”