Being homeless in Washington DC can be brutal. For those living on the streets of America’s capital, it’s easy to wonder whatever happened to the “American Dream” they had heard so much about. Once a year, on frigid nights, volunteers meet to identify and count the faceless, nameless people that are passed by every day by people more interested in luxury and politics than in making a difference.
It was two in the morning when the three approached a pile of blankets tucked behind some bushes. The corner of 16 and K Street in Washington DC is a place that tourists hurry by without thinking that anyone could call the intersection home. The three people out this early weren’t tourists. They were volunteers helping to conduct the annual “Point in Time” that seeks to conduct a census of the homeless in the nation’s capital and around the nation.
On January 29, about 250 volunteers met in a church basement in DC to start the census. The survey, sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development tries to view a glimpse of the nation’s homeless propulation and answer a few basic questions. When did they start living on the streets? Did they serve in the military? Any addiction or medical problems?
Officials utilize the numbers gathered to see how the country is doing in fighting homelessness. The figures are also used in the allocation of federal money. HUD compiled the numbers from volunteer census takers and found the money needed to shelter 610,042 persons. Over 7,000 call the streets of Washington DC home.
Unlike the rest of the country, which has seen the population drop, the total in DC has increased by 20 percent. Washington DC presently has the fifth largest homeless in the country according to The National Alliance to End Homelessness. The increasing numbers are making service providers struggle. The January cold spell in Washington left shelters without enough beds and the city was forced to put some families in motels.
To begin the 2014 PIT, a meeting was held by a group of homeless advocacy groups with a hefty goal: end homelessness in the city by 2017. According to the 2013 count, there were 1,800 people who have lived on the streets for at least a decade.
Speaking at the opening of the meeting were several individuals who have left the streets thanks to the help from advocates. Alan Banks, 53, talked about his days of eating out of trash cans because he was hungry. He would spend a great deal of time sitting on park benches watching people go by, wishing he had somewhere to go. Banks said he never “…saw homelessness coming.” It’s a sentiment that holds true for everyone in America. For too many, the sentiment has proven to be naive.
Washington DC is a compact city when compared to other cities in America. About 60 square miles had to be covered during the PIT by 250 volunteers. Working from 10 pm to 2 am, they counted every homeless person they could find. Most teams found many people, some teams didn’t find anyone. The teams working in residential Chevy Chase knew they would not find many homeless people spending their evenings in that neighborhood. But they had to go out anyway.
Finding where the homeless sleep can be challenging. Many homeless people work hard to find a spot where they won’t get bothered by passersby or the police. Favorite spots usually are behind bushes or hidden in dark corners. For every homeless person sleeping in the open, there are dozens hidden from view.
Finding the hidden spots can have unexpected, and bad, consequences. One volunteer talked about an incident the previous year when a homeless man he had met earlier told him his secret location so he could be found later for the survey. Showing up to count them, he attracted the attention of private security who discovered the homeless man sleeping. “We proably cost the guy his safe spot for the night,” the volunteer said with remorse.
The person under the pile of blankets? He was a homeless man that was probably wondering why the American Dream had missed him.
Editorial by Jerry Nelson