Thursday, March 17, 2011

Experiencing a "Point in Time"

On a clear, chilly, January night, we piled into cars, armed with clipboards, flashlights, boxes of hats and gloves, and questions. Questions for homeless folks we would find on the street about demographics and their various needs.We drove around Chicago, peering out the car windows, searching for people to count and survey for the biannual “Point In Time” info gathering. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires all cities seeking federal funding for homeless programs to conduct a count of the homeless population. This will estimate needed allocations for homeless services. Though counterintuitive, we had an incentive to find as many currently homeless people as possible. We wanted to gather the most accurate number, so that homeless folks aren’t “short changed” when it comes to allocating funding for our city. 

I was assigned to a portion of the Lincoln Park neighborhood, along with two other Point In Time volunteers. Dozens of volunteers gathered at headquarters around Chicago, and were dispatched all over the city, with the intent of surveying every square inch. My group and I weaved carefully through the pristine streets of Lincoln Park, filling our map with highlighter marks as we turned each corner. It felt ridiculous to be searching for homeless folks down streets lined with fancy cars perched in front of million dollar homes. I doubted that there would be much tolerance for people to be “loitering” on these streets, and I doubted that people who are homeless would feel comfortable on these streets anyway. Not surprisingly, we found one person; he was speedily wheeling a shopping cart down a busy street and preferred not to be surveyed.

Our count after 4 hours of searching: 1.  

Demographic info collected and warm winter clothing distributed: 0.

This was not what any of us novice Point In Time volunteers expected when we signed up weeks earlier. I had envisioned being on a street such as Lower Wacker, having worthwhile conversations with maybe 25 homeless individuals, collecting valuable info, distributing needed supplies. You know, like how it would be in a movie.

As we are constantly reminded in social service work: there is always more to the story. Are there a number of individuals sleeping outside in Lincoln Park who we missed? When other Northside counting groups reported similarly low numbers, can we be sure that our tally is anywhere near accurate? What made the man we encountered on Clybourn wary of interacting with us? Can he be reached with services? Does he want services? A most interesting question: does he need services? Can it be deduced that folks staying outside on a below zero night in January (presumed to be a time when only the “truly” homeless are out), are challenged with a mental illness? Is enough being done to care for our homeless neighbors? Should we care?
As we drove back to headquarters at 2am, we surmised whether or not we had just done a service or a disservice to the currently and future homeless. This was the major take-away for me. There are people currently feeling snug and secure in their houses who will become homeless. Will Chicago be prepared to serve them? 
 --Katie McNamara, Case Management Intern

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