Visible, if just for one night

Jan. 27, 2010

Those who are homeless are often invisible, ignored.

We chose to see, or not see, the man begging for change as we walk down the street. We forget that our friends who just needed a place to stay “for a few days” are still sleeping on our couch. We ignore the waitress who sleeps in her car behind the diner in town. We pretend homelessness has nothing to do with poverty.

But, last night, as many were watching President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address, thousands of dedicated volunteers were hitting the streets across the country in search of the homeless. Volunteers peered into back alleys and dark corners, beneath underpasses and in abandoned cars. The goal: one night each year cities and towns across the nation make an all-out effort to count the number of people who are homeless. Called the point-in-time census, it is an attempt to take a “snapshot” of homelessness in this country.

So, when dozens of volunteers fanned out to do a search of the district late Wednesday night, I was among them.

Bundled up and armed with just a flashlight, a clipboard and some $5 gift cards for McDonald’s, I set out with a half dozen other volunteers to scour the DC waterfront and around the Navy Yard. We broke into teams of two and searched the area block by block. (It is hoped that by doing the survey late at night, and when it is cold, there will be fewer people to count on the street. Besides counting those living on the street the census counts those living in emergency shelters and transitional housing, or who can otherwise be identified as homeless.)

Not long after we began our search, the woman I was paired up with for the night and I came across a blanketed form near the marina. As we attempted to get the person’s attention, we realized no one was there–the blanket had merely been left in the shape of whomever had last slept there.

But, elsewhere along the waterfront, we did find people living without a fixed address; a couple who called the street home, and a small group of men who slept in tents or beneath the nearby underpasses.

Just a mile from the I-395 underpass that sheltered perhaps a half dozen men, depending on the night, helicopters buzzed overhead and block after block was closed off as part of the intense security measures around the Capitol for the State of the Union Address. I could not help but think that while our first black president was addressing the public, so many other black men have been abandoned to the streets of the district.

Though a few people did not want to participate in the census and remained hidden under their blankets, or shouted for us to go away, most of the people we encountered were willing to be counted and answer the intensely personal questions on the survey. And, though virtually all said they would be happy to move into permanent housing, many expressed resistance to shelters. “They’re filthy,” we were told. One nearby shelter had “mold older than I am,” and “feces on the walls.”

For four hours we walked block by block along the waterfront, then eventually weaving between gentrified and gated communities and some of the district’s poorest subsidized housing along South Capitol Street and the Southeast Freeway.

I am certain that as many people as we did find on the streets of our section of Southwest and Southeast DC, we likely missed many more. And, while the woman I was teamed with and I looked under some highway underpasses, we did not search them all–the aggressive behavior of one individual we had encountered early in the night along with the long, dark field required to get to an area we suspected was home to many of DC’s homeless was enough to dissuade us.

At the end of the night, we had found only 10 people living on the street in the small portion of the district our group searched. The total count for DC and the surrounding metro region will not be released for several months. Last year’s count found 12,035 people who were homeless in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area, 6,228 of whom were in the district itself. About 10 percent of the total homeless population last year were found to be unsheltered, 1,238 people–about 25 percent of whom live on the streets of DC.

The use of point-in-time counts has been criticized by some as portraying an inaccurate picture of homelessness that overemphasizes the population that is chronically homeless, and that does not count those who have turned to friends or family for shelter. It is a flaw that has no easy solution, but that does not go ignored.

“As in prior years, the 2009 count does not include persons who are living ‘doubled up’ in housing with relatives or friends as that is beyond the mission of the Homeless Services and Coordinating Task Force’s annual survey. However, due to the current national recession and ongoing housing foreclosures in many local jurisdictions, there is growing concern that many of the region’s residents may be considered ‘at risk’ of becoming homeless.” –The 2009 Count of Homeless Persons in Shelters and on the Streets in Metropolitan Washington

And unfortunately there were not even enough volunteers to search everywhere in the district. As I sat through training classes to prepare us for the census, I noticed that the maps of DC had sections marked off in green, blue and pink. Green areas were to be covered block by block and blue areas as best as resources would allow, with locations of known homeless populations marked out. The pink areas were not to be covered at all. Much of Southeast and Northeast, and all of the areas east of the Anacostia River were blanketed in pink.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper