Tuesday, March 10, 2009

2009 HOPE Survey

Every year the Department of Homeless services gathers thousand of volunteers on a freezing January night to conduct a census of the cities homeless population. Like last year, I was one of this year's volunteers. (now joined by Erin Moore!) We spent from 11:30pm-3am walking around Bryant park administering a survey to everyone we saw.

The theory is that on the coldest night, only the most chronic homeless are found on the street. Targeting areas where most homeless people sleep/congregate, teams of volunteers go about counting each person who identifies themselves as homeless. This is probably the best possible way to go about the difficult task of counting people outdoors, but the city used this years results to claim that street homelessness was down by almost 30%. Critics like the Coalition say "The numbers released by the City today defy credibility and run counter to what New Yorkers observe every day on New York’s streets." I agree. Moreover, this census is simply a snapshot of what the population looks like on one day, not a blank check to claim progress unearned.

Still, being part of the survey is a very interesting experience.... a glimpse both into the bureaucracy of a large public operation and the loneliness of the cold New York night time. It was our brief look into the unfathomable notion of sleeping in a door way or waiting out the night on a park bench.

On some level I felt empowered. I was able to do something logical, statistical, procedural to ostensibly help my homeless neighbors. But I felt like the donuts and coffee and glossy instruction book (oh what beautiful instructions!) soothed my deeper sense that seeing people sleeping in the cold is truly a nightmare. There are so many ways to steel yourself for the reality of suffering, but nothing can prevent those momentary lapses... layers of dirty blankets... someone lonely, stumbling the street in the freezing morning.

One such moment came at the end of our night. After finding only 2 homeless people (sadly, you almost feel disappointed the fewer people you find) we ran into a man wandering with a pillow on a side street. We stopped to talk to him and he drunkenly/skeptically ask "what the fuck are you gonna do for me?" As instructed by the survey we were supposed to offer transportation to a city drop-in center. He snorted "They ain't gonna do shit.... Where they gonna take me?" He continued on to angrily recount his experience on the streets (since the age of 16). He obviously didn't trust anyone, didn't have any hope. But he did have some place to be in the morning... a job. Finally he asked "Can I bring my pillow?"
We called him a van and waited. He continued to insist that nothing would help. Then he looked at me and said "Why are you doing this?" I made a feeble reply, but wondered. Why am I doing this?

The van arrived. We wanted to get him to a drop-in center close to where he had to work the next day, but the driver didn't know where the drop-in center was..... How could the driver not know where he was taking people?? Under the cities new plan, drivers like this are the ONLY people helping the street homeless at night. Luckily Erin and I figured it out and gave him directions (well... mainly she did). We rode in the van while the driver took a wrong turns and our homeless friend insisted nobody would help him. He said "I know you guys are trying to help, but they ain't gonna do shit. Nobody does." I reassured him, but wasn't so sure myself.

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