I was lucky enough to participate in the HOPE Survey this year – or The Homeless Outreach Population Estimate. Basically, it’s a survey done by the Department of Homeless Services in NYC that counts the number of homeless people living in every borough of the city. Volunteers sign up for different areas and then just walk the streets/public spaces to ask every person if they want to take a survey on their housing situation. The results are used for evaluation and programming purposes to further help NYC’s homeless population.
I volunteered this year through the non-profit I work for, and got my husband to sign up as well. Both of us were assigned to patrol a part of the Gramercy Park area, between 25th and 31st streets from 3rd Ave to FDR Drive. We arrived at a public school for our orientation at 10:30pm on a Monday night, and I signed myself up to be a team leader. With my experience in research and evaluation with the homeless population I guess it was fine, even though I hadn’t done this particular survey before. Around midnight, the orientation ended and with surveys, maps and a police escort we began our journey.
We basically walked from midnight to 4am. It was a Code Blue situation that night (very, very cold) so that meant we were had to gently nudge people awake, just to make sure they weren’t freezing in the snow. Oh man, to be the person that had to wake up all the sleeping homeless people! I did not want that job. We were also instructed to ask all homeless people whether they wanted a ride to either the drop-in shelter or adult intake shelter, just so they would have a bed for the night.
We counted our first homeless person around 1:30am. He didn’t speak much English but was willing to participate in the survey. He was also interested in being taken to the drop-in shelter, so we were more than happy to call the van for him. We counted another in front of Bellevue Hospital, and we realized why DHS gave us a police escort. Mental illness is rampant throughout the homeless population and this guy was loudly talking to himself and we weren’t sure how dangerous he was. He was willing to participate in the survey and he wanted a warm place to stay for the night. At this point we heard that the 24 hr drop-in shelter in Manhattan was extremely busy (lots of homeless being sent there, I’m sure) so we offered to walk with him to an intake shelter.
Some background: there are four intake shelters in NYC for the homeless – one for adult men, one for adult women, one for adult families with no children under 21 years and one for families with children under 21 and pregnant women. We walked him to the intake shelter for adult men and waited until he was safely scanned through security. It was great to actually see this place, I had only heard of it before in my line of work. Intake shelters differ from drop-in shelters in that at an intake shelter a homeless person is assessed and based on eligibility are sent to appropriate transitional housing. For example, my non-profit gets referrals from the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Office (PATH), which is the intake for Families with children under 21. Drop-in shelters simply have beds for homeless that want to stay for a night, but don’t want to be in the system and placed for transitional housing.
Lastly, we found one last homeless person (another male) who wanted a transport to the drop-in center, after agreeing to participate in our survey. He was in front of NYC Medical Center. We saw him towards the end of the night, but it was at the perfect time. We were really tired at that point, and very cold. Seeing and helping him perked us up quite a bit.
We were also able to find two decoys that were hanging out around the adult intake shelter. Going into the night, we knew that there would be people throughout NYC that were pretending to be homeless. They were there to make sure we canvassed our whole area and asked everyone whether they wanted to take a survey or not. So overall, our team identified three actual homeless people and two decoys, pretty much what I expected within the Gramercy neighborhood (east midtown, still pretty posh).
We actually had a lot of fun. My husband (a start-up geek) was great. He surveyed two of the homeless guys and while I could tell he was a little nervous at first, he was really into it by the end of the night. Our team was also fantastic (8 of us). The time flew by since we were all laughing and joking with each other. The two cops we had accompanying us were really nice. I don’t think they realized what they were in for. They told us that when they get assigned “Homeless detail” it usually means they’re nice and warm in their car looking for homeless people. Lucky for them they got to walk with us all four hours!
At the end of night we walked back to where we started and handed in our surveys. I signed off on all of them (being bad-ass team leader and all) and we finally headed home. I would do this again in a heartbeat!
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