Last Monday night, I arrived at the “Homeless Count” organized by the Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID), nervous and excited to participate in a direct service activity, after a month and a half into my research and advocacy internship with NCH.
Volunteers were given a brief orientation session and were divided into groups, my group was assigned an area in the heart of Chinatown. We were given a map, a flashlight, several outreach service information cards, and some questionnaires. We were instructed to locate people who were experiencing homelessness, pinpoint their location on our map, ask them the questions on the questionnaire, and give them a service outreach card so they would be aware of the services available to them in D.C.
Being new to the count, I decided to sit back and watch how my fellow group members would approach people who were homeless. It seemed straight-forward, they would approach someone, introduce the organization we were with and explain how this homeless count was meant to help them.
At first, it seemed like our introduction made sense, we were helping them, right? However, I quickly began to wonder if I was helping them at all. We were demanding these people’s time, late at night, asking them personal questions, and I couldn’t help but wonder: what was I actually giving them? The only thing we had to physically give out was the outreach services information card that listed services these people might have already known about.
Feeling that I was not really doing anything of value for the homeless, we approached a an older gentleman, who made it clear to me what I should have been doing all along. The man, we’ll call him Jackson, was a Vietnam veteran who had originally come to D.C. for a job in construction. Unfortunately, when he arrived, the job fell through and as time went on, it became harder to make ends meet. Eventually he wound up living on the streets. Even at 74 years of age, Jackson said that he would still be able to do construction work, if there were any jobs available that is. This man had a lot to say but after 5 minutes with him, my group nudged me to move on. I could tell Jackson had more to say so I stayed, figuring that if all I had was a measly pamphlet to give him, the least I could do was give him my time and full attention.
When we met Benjamin, I was faced with an ethical dilemma. The last question on the survey was: “Is there anything we can do right now to help you?” But my question was: If there was something we could do, would we? No one made that more evident to me than Benjamin. Though he sat with us and answered all of our questions, when he asked for small meal because he had not eaten since the morning, my group and I quickly declined saying we had no food to give. I wondered why we had asked the question in the first place if we were not really going to do anything about it. I had money, I could have gone and bought him food, but the group assured me that that was not what we were here to do. We were here to count, not to feed and not to enable the cycle. Perplexed, I wondered how feeding someone kept them homeless…wouldn’t it just keep them healthy and alive?
Finally, we met a couple named Mike and Chloe, who were traveling from Miami. They said they were trying to get to Maine, and when I asked why, they responded that they were going “home”. As Mike played the drums and Chloe danced around to the beat, they assured me that the money they were collecting was to catch a ride “home”. They didn’t seem down, on the contrary, they seemed to like an adventurous life on the road. Though not quite the average homeless couple, we counted them and headed back to the BID office.
By 12:30, our counting had come to an end. In total we counted 12 people who were experiencing homelessness, some sleeping, some walking, some working and some, just trying to get home. Hopefully, the BID’s count will ensure that all these people find permanent help.
*names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.
By: Kelsi Sullivan, NCH Summer Intern