I’ve participated in the annual Point-in-Time counts in a number of different cities over the past decade. The Point-in-Time count is one way we collectively can understand the scope and breadth of homelessness across the country and to measure our progress toward ending it.
To kick off our new blog at USICH.gov, I thought I would reflect on a truly unique count that I did this January in New Orleans.
We started the evening at UNITY of Greater New Orleans’ outreach team offices. All of the volunteers were warmly welcomed by the three team leaders for the count. We were split into ten teams of two or three. In New Orleans, the PIT is a two-night event because canvassing areas are too large for one night. New Orleans does an enumeration as well as interviews to capture the needs of those living unsheltered. One of the questions we were to ask was about where they were living when Katrina hit.
I was part of a team of three with Kathleen North, Director of UNITY’s’s prioritized registry which keeps track of the most vulnerable homeless residents of New Orleans. (New Orleans is active with Community Solutions' 100,000 Homes Campaign.) We were joined by Calvin Lee, who is the Building Superintendent of UNITY and who also plays a role in outreach. We were assigned the French Quarter, and on a warm and pleasant Monday night it was pretty quiet.
The first person we spoke with was a woman sleeping on a doorstep. We learned that she was 49, though she looked much older and frail. I was surprised how freely she answered Kathleen's questions which covered things like "have you had a mental health diagnosis" and "have you been hospitalized recently."
When we reached the river, we searched under the wharf. This involved stepping down and under on some raggedy rocks—it was quite dark so we were also using flashlights. We called out and found "Al" and "Bob" underneath. We tried not to think about how many rats also occupy the space where they are living. We learned from "Bob" that he was 51 years old, receiving SSI, has Hepatitis C, and was recently hospitalized for a respiratory infection. "Bob" wants an apartment, “even a rat-hole.” He told us that he served for four years in the Navy on an aircraft carrier and was honorably discharged. Kathleen promised to follow up and connect both with their outreach team to get them assessed for housing prioritization and offer services. "Al" told us that there are other people staying under the wharf as well. I was very grateful to know that Calvin and Kathleen planned to return later that night or the next day in hopes of catching an interview with others sleeping under the wharf as well as to offer acces to services and housing.
We returned to the street and moved past rows of parked tour buses filling up with tourists who have ended their night visiting the historic French Quarter under the bright lights of the big city. Across from the buses, we saw three people sleeping along the wall. I met "Chuck" who was 46 and told me that he really wanted to get off the streets. He was sleeping on cardboard and has neck problems due to a degenerative spinal condition. He indicated that he planned to follow up with UNITY to get assessed for housing prioritization.
We checked out a few other areas in the riverfront park and saw evidence of bedrolls but found no other people to interview. We moved on to continue the street canvass. We found one guy leaning/sleeping along the side of a building. As Kathleen began interviewing him, others dropped by and asked for help. UNITY has an excllent reputation as a trusted service provider to those living unsheltered in New Orleans. I think we interviewed at least six people at that one spot.
The most difficult interview for me was "David" who at 24 is the same age as my daughter. When I asked if he had a disability, he whispered to me that he has had HIV/AIDS for five years. He seemed very sad and noted that he really wanted to get off the streets and into his own apartment. It was gut-wrenching to leave this very ill young person behind. I hoped that UNITY would be able to re-connect with him.
We also listened to a woman who was nine months pregnant and wanted help finding housing. She said this has been very difficult as she is a registered sex offender related to a prostitution conviction 10 years ago; she said she was staying with friends but needs her own place before the baby is born.
Towards the end of the night, my team talked about how hard it was to see human beings living in such horrible conditions, especially in a nation as well off as ours. We were walking among tourists in the midst of one of the top vacation and convention spots in the country. The contrast was stark. I kept thinking—we, as America, can do better than this. Knowing that the cost of leaving men, women, youth and children on the street was greater than if they were housed made the urgency to do better even more pressing.
When you talk with people and listen to their experiences, it is a somber reminder of how lives can get derailed in many ways: hurricane, a job loss, a divorce, or a parent's rejection when a youth expresses his sexual orientation. Without a safety net, homelessness happens. Everyone we spoke with that night wants a path back to stability. My hope is that one day soon each and every one has a safe and stable home and is on a path to stability and fulfilling their aspirations for a better life. We can't afford not to.