On a Bitter Night, Volunteers Fan Out to Count—and Help—the Homeless

At 1:50 a.m., Tuesday, Leo Nemirovsky and four others descended into the 51st subway station on Line 6. Their mission: to help count the number of homeless individuals in New York City. They approached a man with a worn-out black backpack in his hands, leaning against the wall on the platform.

Nemirovsky , the leader of the five-volunteer team, spoke to him and filled out a housing situation questionnaire. He found out the person is a Mexican, homeless, but was willing to be transferred to a shelter. Nemirovsky then called for a pick-up to take him to a nearby intake center immediately.

In the meantime, a volunteer, nodding and smiling, talked in Spanish to the homeless. The other three on the team were double-checking completed questionnaires. They stood 10 feet away from their teammate’s conversation, making sure the man was not overwhelmed.

From midnight Tuesday to around 4 a.m., the squad canvassed their assigned blocks around Rockefeller Plaza following specific routes detailed on the map. They stopped every person they encountered, asked about their housing situation and aided any homeless person seeking shelter to escape the 26-degree cold. Nemirovsky’s five-person brigade was one of the hundreds of volunteer teams that fanned out across the five boroughs in the early hours of Tuesday as part of an effort organized by the city’s Department of Homeless Services’ annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, known as HOPE, which is part of a nationwide count that takes place every year in the middle of the winter.

The estimate is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is a barometer used to determine how much federal funding cities should receive. The final result usually comes in late spring every year.

For 14 consecutive years, the city has recruited volunteers to conduct a point-in-time census of New Yorkers sleeping outside during the coldest period of the year. More than 4,200 volunteers, the highest over the years, registered to help the count, and not all of them were from New York.  Some came from as far away as West Point.

“It’s an opportunity to help cadets build empathy, compassion and cross-cultural skills. There’s a lot of adaptation that occurs,” Remi Hajjar, a sociology professor at West Point, wearing a “HOPE 2015” crewneck sweater, said after checking-in at a training site at Public School 116 in mid-Manhattan. A team of five professors and 27 cadets travelled for about one and a half hours from West Point to New York City to engage in what Professor Hajjar regarded as “a form of community service.” He has volunteered to participate in the estimate every year since 2014. Over this time, he and his cadets have met many veterans sleeping in the street.

“We see sadness, humiliation, fear, isolatedness and, in some cases, substance abuse issues. It’s a very uncomfortable experience going up to perfect strangers at two in the morning. We’ll talk about the experiences in class,” he added.

To prepare the volunteers with basic skills, potential risks and solutions before asking them to canvass the street with writing pads and questionnaires, the city organized more than 30 training sites across the city. Volunteers were asked to meet at the spots at 10 p.m. on Monday night.

At a volunteer training site near Times Square, Nemirovsky, 37, instructed three first-time volunteers with his own experience. Before heading to Rockefeller Plaza at midnight, he asked everyone in the group to do a mock survey with teammates.

Nemirovsky, who took part in the count for a second time, filled his backpack with hats, scarves, several pairs of gloves and dozens of pens. “Some pens are not working in the cold. I’ve seen that before. And do treat your pads as holy,” he told the volunteers.

Over the four hours of canvassing, the team followed the route provided along the streets and subway platforms. They stopped every person they met, no matter whether they were wearing a black tie or lying on the ground in a subway station . The group spoke to about 100 people and found about 10 that were homeless. They contributed the information of the assigned area to the city database.

The volunteer-strolling methodology to gather crucial information for federal funds, however, remains controversial to some homeless advocates because they think the city is likely to undercount the homeless people on the street on that specific night.

“The methods used by the city to try to estimate the number of homeless New Yorkers on the streets have long been flawed and inconsistent, and thus result in inaccurate results with questionable utility,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless, which has never engaged in the estimate. The non-profit thinks changeable conditions, for example the temperature, impact the tally of unsheltered homeless, which could adversely affect the funding for homeless alleviation received by the city.

The Department of Homeless Services of New York City said they were using a reliable algorithm to tackle different weather conditions over the years. And the city department said they planted decoys in pairs throughout the city to ensure the accuracy of the volunteers’ work.

For some homeless non-profits cooperating with the government, the yearly count is not only a check of the government’s work but also an opportunity for public engagement.

“It’s an opportunity to increase the understanding of the group of people. It’s also a challenge for the volunteers to step out of the comfort zone,” said Brenda Rosen, the president of Breaking Ground, an organization that has assisted the city since the first estimate in 2005.

The volunteer team led by Nemirovsky in the 26-degree cold

At 3:43 a.m., Nemirovsky’s team members came back to the training site with runny noses and cold-numb hands, cheering and high-fiving each other. They were the last team of the site to come back. Waiting for them were five breakfast sandwiches and a group photo of achievement.

“I think I will go home without my toes and fingers,” said Lula Edmonds, 32, one of the first-time volunteers in the team. However, she said she would participate again in the count next year, though she said she would be a bit wiser about what she wore.  “I will put hand warmers or heating packs in my gloves next year.”