Counting the Homeless on a Frigid Night: No Easy Task

by Patrick McGovern and Anand Katakam

Arthur Chatetham III, 52, a former security guard, was found on a bench on the north corner of Madison Square Park in Midtown during Tuesday’s Homeless Outreach Population Estimate. Each year volunteers canvass the city to estimate the number of homeless individuals living on the streets. (Anand Katakam/NY City Lens)

Arthur Chatetham III, 52, a former security guard, was found on a bench on the north corner of Madison Square Park in Midtown during Tuesday’s Homeless Outreach Population Estimate. Each year volunteers canvass the city to estimate the number of homeless individuals living on the streets. (Anand Katakam/NY City Lens)

At 2 a.m. Tuesday morning, as many New Yorkers were warm in bed, Fausto Briceno roamed a desolate, frigid Hunts Point with a clipboard in hand.

After an hour of finding nothing but empty streets and businesses long past closing time in this Bronx neighborhood, he spotted a young woman sitting on a stoop – a strange site given the 15-degree temperatures and biting wind.

“Do you have somewhere to stay?” Briceno asked the young woman. “Do you have a home?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” said the young woman. “I live in this building.”

Briceno, a social worker from the South Bronx, knew that the young woman did not have a home, despite her claims to the contary. This was his fifth year canvassing the city’s streets for Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, known as HOPE, and he knew what to look for.

“Nobody would just be sitting outside like that if they had a place to go,” he said. “Plus, she had such a large backpack. That’s all her possessions.”

Briceno, along with two other volunteers and escorted by two New York City police officers, were on the streets as part of an annual effort by the Department of Homeless Services to estimate the number of homeless individuals living on the streets, subway stations and parks outside the city’s shelter system.

This was the 10th year that the department attempted to gauge how many people in the city don’t seek shelter. Between 2005 and 2013, the Hope Survey has shown a 28 percent decline in homelessness. According to the Hope Survey, in January 2013, New York had 3,180 homeless living in enclosed public spaces and another 1,339 unsheltered citizens across the city.

Despite Tuesday’s freezing cold weather, the project drew approximately 3,000 volunteers from across the city.

“Anyone of us can be there. We have more in common than we think,” said Deborah Negron, a social studies student at Touro University, who drove from her Orange County home with her husband, Efrain, to help out with the survey.

Among the first people to be documented in midtown was Arthur Chatetham III, a 52-year-old former security guard who was found on a bench on the north corner of Madison Square Park.

“I lost my toes while I was working. Now I am here. I am not complaining,” said Chatetham. “It is what it is.”

According to last year’s survey, volunteers counted a total of 3,180 unsheltered individuals, with 165 of them found in the Bronx.

On this night, Briceno and his group found just two.

“We didn’t see many people sleeping in the cold, and that’s a good thing,” said April Bowers, a case manager from the East Village and fourth-year volunteer. “Hopefully that means they found their way inside somewhere and are warm.”

Walking on an unlit, muddy path underneath the Bruckner Expressway, the group found a man sleeping on the ground underneath a pile of dirty blankets. In past years, volunteers were instructed not to wake those who appeared to be sleeping or bedded down for the night. For the first time ever, however, this year’s survey took place during a Code Blue, when temperatures drop below 32 degrees for a sustained four hours. Because of the frigid temperatures, volunteers were told to wake everybody and offer shelter or emergency services.

“Sir, do you need help?” asked Jamil Davis, a social worker from Morrisania, as he tried to wake the man. “We can help you.”

The two police officers stepped out of their bodyguard role and attempted to intervene as well, to no avail. Despite the inhumanly freezing temperatures and damp conditions under the expressway, the man insisted he was fine and did not need help.

“We really want to help, but there is only so much you can do,” said Bowers. “We can’t force them to go inside if they don’t want to.”

After scouring the streets of Hunts Point for three hours, the group returned to their staging site at Hostos Community College around 3:30 a.m. Other volunteers greeted them with applause, as if they had just finished a race.

“It’s nice to help people, but it breaks your heart,” said Davis. “I’m going home to a nice warm bed, and after what we’ve seen tonight, it makes you grateful.”

“But I’ll be out here again next year, for sure.”

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