Robert Hess calls homeless people his "clients." As the commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services, Hess has lofty goals -- he wants to help every single homeless person off the streets and into a permanent home.
Whatever Hess is doing, it's working. There's been a 47 percent reduction in homelessness since 2005. But Hess doesn't know how the recession might upset the declining numbers. The only way to know for sure is to count them homeless, one by one.
Every year, on the third Monday of January, volunteers walk thousands of miles on the grids of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and climb through the underworld of the subways lines. On January 25th, 3,000 volunteers showed up to HOPE 2010, the annual NYC Street Survey, to count the homeless.
Hess looks forward to this night all year. The somewhat lofty task of tracking down all of New York's homeless is how he tracks the city's progress of getting people off the street. Once they help people find comfort and feed them, Hess and his team can help find them jobs. Many go from homeless to homebound and go onto live a normal life.
This past Monday, I decided to join Hess and help him count the homeless in Manhattan. I got assigned to midtown Manhattan, so I arrived at Mary Lindley Murray School at 10:45 p.m. The 150 volunteers sat in their assigned teams at the 26 different tables set up in the gym. Police officers waited quietly in the adjoining room. Apples and granola bars and coffee lined the hallway. The eclectic crowd -- teenagers, grandpas, buff, scrawny, you name it -- will need the fuel as they roam the streets from 12 am to 4 am.
The orientation began. It was as fun as high school Trigonometry class. It dragged on for an hour with people raising their hands and reading the survey questions out loud. But it was important to point out that people shouldn't assume someone isn't homeless. Everyone is fair game. Anyone who is walking the streets late at night should be asked the questions in the survey.
At midnight, the counting began. Ellen Howard-Cooper, the district captain for PS116, said to us all, "Ask everyone you come across if they have a place to stay for the night. If they say no and do want a place to stay, you arrange for transport to bring them to a shelter."
Well, that seemed simple enough.
I wore a light purple leather jacket and was empty-handed except for my notebook. I was happy for this unusually mild weather.
"It's the warmest count we've ever had," said Hess.
In the past couple of years, cold winters pushed people underground to seek the comfort of the steamy subway. The homeless prefer to stay on the ends of lines like Coney Island or simply ride the subway cars. Monday night's warm weather might have changed the dynamics of the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, or HOPE count. Hess predicts more people will likely be on the surface this year.
Tonight, 38,000 people live in a shelter. The others resist it and are on the streets tonight. Those are the people we are counting. New York City is the only city in the country that offers people the right to shelter.
Tonight, my group followed Hess as he stayed in front of the pack to confront his clients. To people walking by, we probably looked like a big family of tourists wondering the streets. But we were mostly strangers and we knew where we were going. Our group included a corrections officer, the press secretary for Homeless Services, Hess' 22-year-old daughter, the executive director of Catholic charities, and other members of the press. Nine of us marched in the light rain for 10 minutes to our starting block, 24th Street and 3rd Avenue.
The number one rule was not to wake up anyone who is sleeping. Of course, the first homeless people we spotted were sleeping. Two men were covered in bedding. They made their home under the pillars of a construction zone along Lexington Avenue. One man's head was poking out of a white comforter, and nearby, his suitcase was unpacked, making me think he must plan on staying there for a while. The pungent smell of urine cut the moist air, so I held my nose.
We left the two men undisturbed, resting in a deep sleep, all their information noted on a piece of paper. Our job was over. Later, a dispatch team would arrive to check on them. Ultimately, it's up to the team to follow up and form a relationship with the homeless to convince them to come into one of the shelter systems. Most homeless aren't opposed to the idea of a place to sleep. They just say "it's not time."
Some would rather freeze to death outside in the cold than be chained to the shelter system. That's why the city developed alternatives. Stabilization beds and safe havens don't have as many rules, so people can come in if they're drunk or when they're high.
"We know where folks are living on the street. Hopefully, they will move into their own homes as 3,000 have done so in over the last 3 years," Hess said. "Forget the crimes, it's an urban myth. Most people who are homeless are tired or just want to have a drink. They don't want to draw attention to themselves."
On average, a person spends seven and a half years on the street, if they don't accept the city's help.
Hess has been helping people put shelter over their heads since his boss asked him to look into the situation of homeless veterans when he was living in Baltimore. There, Hess helped set up the Maryland Center For Veterans Education And Training which became the national model.
"I was appalled by what I saw because the goal was to move people out of sight during rush hour," he said. "When I saw how different good effective policy interventions could be in transforming lives, I decided to take another career path," Hess said, with a huge grin.
We saw two men sitting on a bench. One, Wayne Harrison, was sitting on the left side of the bench, shivering. He looked homeless -- not that I was making assumptions. The orientation warned us not to. But he was shaking and looked like he'd been there for days.
Today, Harrison is pretending to be homeless. He is one of 200 trained decoys planted around the city to make sure the volunteers are covering their ground and counting accurately. The decoys get $75 in exchange for their homeless act and time given for training sessions. Harrison knows what it is like to be homeless. He was homeless for 5 years until 2005 due to a drug addiction. Now he is drug free, he says, and works at Interfaith Assembly on Homeless and Housing. When asked about what was the hardest thing about being homeless, he said facing hunger and being cold.
Two men in sleeping bags and with angry expressions staked out the top steps of Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church on 22nd St. The men refused their right to shelter, so we moved on.
The count is working. "People come to us when they are in crisis. If they know they are safe, warm, and fed, they can engage in dialogue," said Hess.
Recently, Hess was in Harlem when this woman walked over to him to give him a hug. He helped her get her life back together, and she talked to her mother for the first time in years.
"Now when I walk down the street, I hope someone will hug me. Sadly, that doesn't happen most days," Hess said, jokingly.
We stopped many couples walking back from a night out. One couple, a tall lanky boy and a short girl, looked stunned. The boyfriend admitted that it was kind of weird being stopped by a mob of people. A German couple claimed that they hadn't seen any homeless so far, which is odd because homeless hotspots are also usually tourist hotspots (like Penn Station).
On our way back to the school, we passed another homeless person camped out inside Citibank. He had a hole in his sock, long underwear poking out of his jeans, and he began moving as if he knew this crowd was behind him.
Hess turned to the group to announce our numbers.
"Tonight we encountered four people we believed to be homeless and two decoys," he says. However, the total homeless count from the night will take 8 weeks to verify. "This is the first year I found decoys, very exciting."
Most homeless end up on the street because of financial reasons or as a result of domestic violence. They have the same problems all Americans do, but they don't have the resources to deal with them.
"We can offer help beyond crisis situation. We help them go to work, which is the first step toward independent living," says Hess.
When they have a place to stay, Hess explained, substance abuse goes down and they can focus on having a normal life. They can have reason to hope again.
And the "clients" couldn't have picked a better place to start a new life. Everyone in New York knows our concrete jungle is where dreams are made.
Photos By Laura June Kirsch