Thoughts from a New Board Member

The point-in-time count is an annual census of the homeless population of Northeast Florida taken on a single day.  Changing Homelessness takes this census with volunteers from the community in an effort to know every member of the homeless community by name.  I am a new member of the board of Changing Homelessness, and I thought I would volunteer for this year’s point-in-time count as a way to learn more about the organization and the population it serves.  The count was conducted on Wednesday, January 23.

I signed up for a shift downtown starting at 5:00 a.m., so I had to get up early to make it to the assembly point at FSCJ by 4:30.  My alarm roused me unpleasantly at 3:45, and I briefly felt sorry for myself for having to leave my warm and comfortable bed after such a short night.  There were a lot of people at the assembly point.  The Changing Homelessness staff gave us a quick briefing and then divided us into small groups, making sure first-time volunteers were with more experienced volunteers.  My group included two experienced Downtown Ambassadors and a housing counselor.  I was glad to be with people who knew what they were doing.  We picked up two clipboards with questionnaires for our survey, and then we drove into the heart of downtown and paired off to cover more ground.

My partner was a Downtown Ambassador, and we started our morning at what he called the dog park east of the main library.  There was a lot of evidence people had been in the park, but I couldn’t see anyone from the sidewalk.  We walked into the park beyond the reach of the streetlights and began to see shapes along the far fence.  My partner may have sensed some apprehension as we approached one of the shapes.  He told me to be confident and not tentative.

The first shape was roughly the size of a man, but not an inch of skin was visible.  Instead, the shape was covered in a blanket that appeared to be woven from old, recycled wool-like the thick, sound-insulating wool on the underside of a carpet in an old luxury car.  From afar the blanket appeared to be dark gray.  But up close the randomly colored individual strands of wool were visible.  This was a utilitarian blanket designed only to keep body and soul together.  No concern had been paid to style or luxury.  The owner of this blanket must have had many uncomfortable nights and early mornings, and I felt sorry for him.  I regretted my own self-pity at having to wake up early.  I was to see many identical blankets this morning.

My partner called out to the shape as we approached, and a groggy young man uncovered his face.  My partner explained what we were doing, and I crouched down with the clipboard and asked the young man if he would mind answering our questions.  It was 5:00 in the morning, dark, and this young man had clearly been asleep.  I expected he would tell us to get lost.  But he didn’t.  He was friendly and open.  He gave us his name and answered the personal questions we asked.  One of my questions was where he had slept last night.  This seemed a little incongruous since we had just woken him and could see for ourselves where he had slept.  But he told us something to the effect that he had been sleeping in the park until the police had cleared the place.  I couldn’t tell whether this had been last night and he had moved to the fence line in the middle of the night, or whether it had been some earlier night.  When my alarm woke me so unpleasantly this morning, I could have turned it off and gone back to sleep.  This young man had been awakened by the police, and he could not choose to ignore them.

Another question was what gender he identified as.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask the question this way.  He was clearly a man and identified as such, and I didn’t want to offend him.  I said something like, “I can see you’re a man, right?  They make me ask this question.”  He affirmed the obvious, but he also told me there were no women in the dog park.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I gathered it was dangerous for women to sleep in the dog park.

I took down his answers on the questionnaire and my partner left him a kit of personal hygiene items.  The young man asked what time it was and told us he planned to go somewhere to try and get work as a day laborer.  We both shook his hand and said goodbye.  I was surprised the young man appeared reasonably clean and did not smell.  I wondered where he bathed.

There were several other people in the vicinity, and we talked to each of them.  They were all surprisingly open and willing to talk.  One was an older woman sleeping on the sidewalk across the street from the dog park.  I wondered if she felt safer keeping a street between her and the dangerous dog park.

The dog park is on the northeast corner of Main and Monroe Streets.  On the southwest corner, there is a covered garage with just a low concrete wall separating the sidewalk from the ground floor parking spaces.  We talked to half a dozen people sleeping on the sidewalk against the low concrete wall, and a couple of people sleeping on the other side of the wall.

One person on the sidewalk side was a young woman in her thirties.  She was well groomed and had painted fingernails.  But she was diabetic and had gone without insulin for a month.  My partner gave her the name and location of a social worker and told her to contact the social worker right away for help getting back on her insulin.  Twenty minutes after we talked to this woman, we saw her walking on the sidewalk with her bedding packed away somewhere out of sight.  She was wearing jeans and a clean, light-gray hooded sweatshirt with the name of a college or sports team.  If I had not just seen her asleep on the sidewalk, I would never have known she was homeless.

Another person on the sidewalk side was a young man of 24 who said he had recently started a job as a masonry worker.  He was already awake and getting ready for work when we met him.  I hope he quickly makes enough money at this job to move into proper housing.  The next member of this group was a well-dressed lady in a leather jacket with a nice-looking leather purse.  As I crouched down to talk to the well-dressed lady, her neighbor on the sidewalk interjected that the well-dressed lady was not really homeless.  The well-dressed lady affirmed this and said she was just out there to get the experience so she could design programs to help the homeless.  I mostly believed this in light of her clothes and purse, but I thought I would go through the questionnaire anyway.  It turns out she had been on the street for months, and this was not her first time.  It dawned on me she might not have been willing to admit to herself she was homeless.

The last member of this group was a young man with a toy-breed dog.  A couple people told us not to bother him because he was often angry.  They were right.  He let us know in no uncertain terms he did not want to be disturbed.  We left him alone.  He was the only person we saw all day who displayed any measure of aggression.  When the morning started, I expected most homeless people to be aggressive, but that did not bear out.  Quite the contrary.  We woke people in the predawn hours to ask them invasive questions, but remarkably, only one person responded with anything less than friendliness and willingness to talk.

We next walked around the corner and headed south on Main Street half a block.  There we met a woman sitting on a planter with a wheeled shopping cart piled high with bedding and what I imagine were all her worldly possessions.  My partner knew her and told me to listen carefully because it was difficult to understand what she was saying.  He said he wasn’t sure how much of her incoherence was the result of mental illness and how much was a defense mechanism.  My partner greeted her by name, and she responded with a largely incoherent rant that mentioned the Caribbean and New York.  I think she also said something about college.  I asked her my questions, and she responded with long, rambling, mostly unintelligible answers.  But her answers usually contained a few words responsive to the questions.  I had trouble sorting the wheat from the chaff, but my partner helped me interpret and we got through the questionnaire.  The woman had curly hair dyed dark pink.  When we walked away, I said I wondered where she went to have her hair dyed.  My partner said he thought she was wearing a wig.  She was the only person we met who obviously suffered from mental illness.  This was another surprise.  I assumed most homeless people would suffer from severe mental illness.  But I met well more than a dozen homeless people during my shift and only one with an apparent mental illness.

We walked through Hemming Plaza toward the federal courthouse.  There were no homeless people in Hemming Plaza, and my partner explained it was illegal to sleep there.   That law was obviously enforced.  There were half a dozen people sitting on the planters across the street from the courthouse, and we talked to all of them.  Several were older, and two seemed to be longtime friends.  One or the other would interject as I was going through my questions and provide further details about the person I was interviewing.  It surprised me that homeless people would have old friends.  I suppose I thought life on the street would be too atomistic and unstable for that.  But I guess adversity can forge strong friendships.

I also met a couple among the group at the courthouse.  They were in their late thirties.  The boyfriend was polite enough, but he didn’t want to answer our questions.  The girlfriend did.  She answered all my questions, and I imagine the boyfriend might have been stewing over her participation in what he saw as an invasion of their privacy.  I hope my interview didn’t cause discord between them.  I wondered if they had been in a relationship before becoming homeless, or if they had met on the street.  I didn’t want to pry, so I didn’t ask.  It must be difficult to maintain a romantic relationship on the street.  Perhaps here, too, adversity can strengthen a relationship.

By the time we finished interviewing the group at the courthouse, it was almost 7:00 and our shift was over.  As we walked back to my partner’s truck, we saw a group of people walking and holding the same hygiene kits we had been distributing.  At first glance, I thought this was a group of homeless people who had gotten the hygiene kits from another team.  But as we got closer, I recognized some of them and realized they were another team conducting the point-in-time count.  The miscue reinforced how surprisingly normal and similar to everyone else I found the homeless people I met.

Author: Brad Russell, Board Member – Changing Homelessness

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