Counting the homeless, block by block

Volunteers canvass the streets of the District for the city’s count of homeless people on Jan. 23.
Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Orli Hendler knew exactly where to look to find people living on the street in the Eastern Market neighborhood of Washington. In fact, she knew the seven people she encountered over the 3.5 hours she canvassed the area in the late night hours of Jan. 23 as part of the city’s annual Point-in-Time Count of the homeless.

Hendler works in homeless outreach, but on this night she was canvassing with 23 volunteers from the Jewish service organization Avodah. Overall, more than 200 people volunteered.

That day, Hendler had given her homeless clients notice that she would be coming by later with the Point-in-Time questionnaire.

“I told them I’d be coming by to ask some questions,” Hendler said, “and apologized ahead of time for waking them.”

Just as Hendler knows the people living on the streets of Eastern Market, she also knows the significance of the count. Mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, each regional or local planning body that coordinates homeless services conducts its own annual count. Data is then compiled in an annual report that HUD sends to Congress and is used to allocate funding and track progress in combating homelessness.

“In addition to the data we can collect, we can see the improvements the city’s made and what we still need to accomplish,” Hendler said.

“The data from 2018 showed a significant decrease in family homelessness” — down 20.8 percent — “which is great because that’s what the city has focused on, getting families in housing,” she said. “But I work with a lot of individuals, I’d like to see more of a focus on them.”

While the 2018 count found a 7.6 percent drop in overall homelessness, the number of homeles individuals rose from 3,583 to 3,770. The data from last week’s count won’t be available until May.

After an 8 p.m. pep talk from Mayor Muriel Bowser, the volunteers spread out across the city. Out on the streets, volunteers are instructed to do their best to wake anyone who’s sleeping, telling the people they encounter that they can opt out of answering questions at any time, but offering a $10 fast food gift card for those who participate.

According to Kat Macías, an Avodah program leader, the script goes something like this:

“Hi, how’s your night going? We’re out here doing surveys for folks sleeping on the streets. We have a $10 gift card to Subway if you want to answer some questions.”

Macías said they spoke with about 30 people while canvassing the North Capitol area adjacent to Eastern Market. “I run through [the questions] pretty quick,” Macías said. “I don’t want to waste anybody’s time, especially if they’re just talking for the money.”

But the questions can get pretty personal, touching on drug use, sexual orientation and gender identity.

“It’s an odd interaction,” Macías said.

And those personal questions can be the most jarring for volunteers.

“I met someone who’s three days younger than me and he was experiencing his first bout of homelessness,” Macías said. “One of the corps members was like, ‘I met a guy who’s been three years homeless and he’s my age. It reminds you of the need that’s still very much present.”

For others, the night was much slower. In a residential part of Capitol Hill, Emily Sullivan canvassed for the first time. She was a bit nervous going in, but whereas Macías was out until about 1:30 a.m., Sullivan’s group was done in about two hours.

They hadn’t seen anyone living on the street.

“It’s interesting to be all prepared and then not do it at all,” Sullivan said. “It wasn’t exactly dull, just like a chill focus. You still want to make sure you’re not missing anything.”

Of course, in the grand scheme, not seeing anyone is the ultimate goal, Hendler said.

“We had to remind some people that, you know, if you didn’t see anyone, that’s a good thing.” n

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