On February 19th, my colleague Sarah Galena and I participated in the annual NYC HOPE Count. Each year the HOPE Count mobilizes 3,000 volunteers across New York City to canvass parks, subways, and other public spaces on a single night. The goal of the HOPE Count is to collect important information from the people surveyed to help estimate the number of people living unsheltered in New York City. The survey data collected is used annually by the New York City Department of Homeless Services to evaluate its progress, improve services for those experiencing homelessness, and provide required data to HUD, which uses the information to advocate for funding homelessness and housing services.
In my role at Foothold Technology, I have the privilege of working with organizations that provide critical services to some of the country’s most vulnerable individuals every day. While I know on an intellectual level that the work we do at Foothold is an integral part of the human services ecosystem, it is easy to feel distanced from the day-to-day work of our clients. This is why it was important to me to sign up for the Count.
We began our overnight session with an orientation in downtown Manhattan where we met the other members of our team. Our team leaders were employees of Foothold’s long-time client Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC), and we also had two HUD employees on our team, who had flown in from Washington, DC to participate. As part of our orientation, we were informed that transit police officers were assigned to accompany the team as we conducted our interviews. At the conclusion of the orientation, we all hopped on a bus headed to our survey site at the end of one of the subway lines in Coney Island.
Once we arrived, the team spread out and Sarah and I agreed that we would take the front end of the subway platform and concentrate on the first four cars. At around 12:15 a.m., we started entering the train cars and began interviewing as many people as we could before the train left the station. One of us asked the questions while the other one documented the answers. I did not expect the logistics of data collection to be so challenging, as we had to make sure we asked questions completely and documented answers accurately in a fairly limited amount of time. Our interviews and data collection continued until a little after 4:00 a.m., when we were bussed back to our orientation site in downtown Manhattan.
It was a long, eventful night which allowed me to get out from behind my computer and, in a small way, better understand the complexity and reality of the issues faced by individuals living unsheltered. Working beside BRC staff gave me a unique opportunity to hear the perspectives of outreach workers and case managers who do this kind of work on a daily basis, giving me an entirely new level of appreciation for the work they do. When I asked the HUD team members what it was like to work on homelessness policy at the national level, I was met with:
“Sometimes it’s three steps forward, and two steps back – but that’s still one step forward! It’s a real collaborative environment that also allows us to focus on getting things done.”
Hearing this type of optimism was a good reminder (and reassurance) that there are a lot of very passionate people behind the scenes that are working to address homelessness. This compassion extended all the way to the police officers that were working with our group. One officer shared his thoughts about being asked to remove homeless people from public spaces – not for disturbing anyone, or doing anything illegal – just for existing. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I just try and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. We all need to do that more often.”
I went into this experience with a healthy dose of cynicism, wondering if my participation was going to be truly helpful or useful for people experiencing homelessness. I have a new appreciation of how our work at Foothold supports agencies like BRC who are working on the front lines to combat these issues and how, through our technology, we allow those agencies to document and report on the services they provide. In part, this can empower them to improve service provision and help cities and regions better understand the populations they serve. At a federal level, the data local agencies record using AWARDS, provides the numbers that HUD takes to Congress to continue funding these important programs. In the end, I came out of the 2015 HOPE Count experience realizing that our role at Foothold is part of a larger team working to provide options and opportunities for people across the country who are experiencing homelessness.