By: Ilana Krakowski
On January 25th, I participated in the Point-in-Time Homeless Persons Count for DC alongside six other DC Corps members. This year, 4,000 cities around the country conducted a count of their homeless populations. The census aims to gather data on the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons, and to assess the needs of those counted. Results of the census are compared to past years, to see what programs may have worked to reduce homelessness, and to see what other policies can ultimately eliminate it. Social service agencies conduct the survey on site during the day while volunteers search the streets for people at night. It was my first time participating in this project and overall, it was an eye-opening experience.
The plan to conduct the census is simple: walk around an assigned area, trying to identify and speak to as many homeless persons as possible. Each neighborhood in the city is given a team leader who divides that neighborhood into several parts. Two or three volunteers then search those sections, armed with both census surveys, information on emergency services, and gift cards to give away.
I was anxious at first by the idea of disturbing individuals to ask them personal questions. The survey asks for as much information as a person is willing to share: employment status; annual income; veteran status; histories of substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, and physical health; and social services utilized. Yet, after I introduced myself and the census, I found that most people were willing to share, and offered information on their homeless situations. We discovered homeless people in George Washington University’s emergency room, in parks, and under highways. Many were hidden under piles of blankets, tucked away in nooks in the dark.
There were many moments where I recognized the range of the homeless experience. Some homeless persons reside in shelters or temporary housing. Others are more visible on city streets and public places, while others hide away underneath the infrastructure of civilization. The last were the hardest to see and the hardest to take in. They go so unnoticed that it is no wonder the present existence of homelessness does not warrant a unanimous public outcry for its end. Many people we spoke to go to free day programs, like Miriam’s Kitchen, where they can receive meals, clothing, showers, and case management. Others receive food stamps or even hold part-time jobs – yet they still struggle with homelessness.
So far in my five months working at a social service and housing agency, I’ve learned that navigating the social service system to get adequate help requires a lot of patience and a strong will. It also can cause humiliation and shame for those who have to share so much personal information and give up their independence in order to access services. These are some of the reasons why someone would give up a bed in a shelter for the street. Of course, there are many more complex reasons too.
After four hours conducting the census, I left wanting our society to provide better opportunities for help. Those who find themselves homeless are still people, like you and I. They have histories that have not always been defined by homelessness. They have personalities, goals, and dreams beyond having basic needs met.
I was proud to have participated with my friends from AVODAH, one of whom knew many of the homeless individuals from his work placement at Miriam’s Kitchen and was excellent at connecting with them. I also felt that the work that I am doing at my placement, N Street Village, is ever more important, in spite of how hard and even frustrating it can be. The most important point that I think both my placement and AVODAH itself reinforces is that each person deserves to fulfill their potential. To help them do that in any way is certainly worth the fight.
Ilana Krakowski, from Brooklyn, NY, attended Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary – List College. As an AVODAH DC Corps member, she is the Wellness Center Program Assistant at N Street Village, which helps women move from homelessness to independent living and deal with issues of substance abuse and mental illness through day and residential programs.