Getting to the point

At 7:45 p.m., we park behind the Dunkin’ Donuts on Derby Avenue and begin walking east. It’s been raining all day, and though the sky is now clear, the air remains thick with moisture. I’m carrying a gallon-sized plastic bag containing a pair of socks, a hat, tissues, Chapstick, a bar of soap.

The first person we survey is a 57-year-old man named Royal Gibbs. He’s tall and dressed in a black tracksuit with blue racing stripes. He stands on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette, and tells us that tonight, he plans to sleep out in a tent with some friends. He’s frustrated by the questions I’m asking him. How many separate times have you stayed in shelters or on the streets in the past three years? Do you have any substance abuse issues? Do you have a physical disability? Do you have AIDS or an HIV related illness? He scoffs. “Look,” he says. “[The city] needs to branch out because they’re not reaching the people who are out here… There’s only three places for these people to go! I’m telling you, within this block there’s, like, 15 homeless people.” I record his answers on my phone. Before he leaves, I offer him the bag of supplies I’ve been holding. He presses it back into my hands, instructing me to give it to someone who needs it more. Still carrying the bag, we move on down the street, looking for other people who, like Gibbs, will be sleeping on the street tonight.

We were surveying homeless people as part of the Point-In-Time count, an annual one-night tallying of all homeless people on the street and in shelters. As a volunteer for the count, I was assigned to the team that would cover a section of West River — a neighborhood due west of downtown, bounded by Chapel Street to the north and Ella T. Grasso Boulevard to the west. We were an eclectic group, composed of a social worker, an outreach coordinator at the Connecticut shelter and housing service Columbus House, a contractor who had once been homeless himself, a student at Southern Connecticut State University, a middle school Spanish teacher, and me. After Gibbs, we surveyed four others. They were less eager to talk, but the few words they volunteered to a group of strangers stopping them on the street contributed to an official report on the state of homelessness in New Haven. 14 other teams were spread throughout the city, gathering data from a sampling of different neighborhoods.

Communities have always been aware of their surrounding homeless populations — the first documentation of them surfaced in America as early as the 1640s — but it wasn’t until the 21st century that efforts were made to record their number. Since 2005, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has mandated all regional programs receiving federal funds to perform an annual count of the homeless. This marked the beginning of the Point-In-Time (PIT) count, occurring every year in the last ten days of January. It falls on local organizations to administer the count. In New Haven, the PIT count is spearheaded by the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness (CCEH), but overseen and coordinated more closely by local providers dealing with homelessness.

graphic by Julia Hedges

When I arrived at First Presbyterian Church on the evening of Tues., Jan. 23, the line was already out the door. Every volunteer was given a big, fluorescent yellow name tag, followed by copious amounts of baked ziti. The volunteers came from community organizations in New Haven: agencies, schools, churches, soup kitchens, and hospitals. Many were veterans of the count, who struggled to recall how many consecutive years they’ve participated. Other volunteers, like my team member, were once homeless and had themselves been recorded by the past PIT counts.

While people were still arriving, I spoke with Keyonna Naughty, a program director at The Connection — a human service and community development agency in Connecticut — and one of the main organizers for this year’s PIT count. Naughty, wearing a down vest in preparation for the hours she would be spending in the cold winter air, kept being pulled away to greet people and answer questions. A few minutes later, Naughty and her co-organizer, Lisbette De La Cruz, the Senior Manager of Outreach and Engagement at Columbus House, held a training session for volunteers. They outlined how the count works, why it’s done, and offered some tips to identify the homeless — “somebody who is in their car, who’s kind of wavering in one space for a long time, who is carrying a lot of belongings, who may have a lot of layers on, who is dressed out of season, who may have a sleepy face, kind of pale skin, maybe looking a little lethargic, like they have been up and walking around all night long.”

In order to avoid counting someone more than once, each group was given several pink and red color-coded maps of sectioned out regions of the city. “Anywhere inside the pink area is where you’ll be canvassing. Make sure that you don’t go outside of the map,” warned Naughty during the training session. For each person we would encounter who identified as homeless, we would fill out a 26-question survey on our phones, using an app called “Counting Us.” All the volunteers downloaded the app at Naughty’s instruction; older generations in the room were slightly perplexed, fumbling with their touch screens. Once they’d downloaded it, people began putting on coats and assembling their team members.

It was a balmy 47 degrees outside. By New England standards, that’s not very cold for a night in January, but it’s a different story when you’re spending the night in a sleeping bag underneath an overpass. HUD mandates that the PIT count be conducted in the last week of January, between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. This is, for several reasons, strategic. “They typically pick what’s supposed to be the coldest night of the year,” said Amy, a social worker in New Haven’s Veteran Affairs’ office, who was on my team the night of the PIT count. That may not have worked out so well this year, but it speaks to the type of population that HUD is targeting. “It’s chosen because it tends to be the hardest month to be homeless,” said Naughty. “If you’re homeless and on the street when it’s not easy, then you’re truly homeless.”

Yet the truly homeless aren’t only found on the street. As the unsheltered count is happening, every head in every shelter, warming center, transitional program, and domestic abuse center in the state is also counted. All of this data — concerning both the sheltered and unsheltered homeless — is sent directly to the CCEH, who analyzes the data and passes it up to HUD. “Then, HUD does a massive national report on the state of homelessness that will show the various headcounts,” said Alison Cunningham, the executive director of Columbus House. This report, called the Annual Homeless Assessment Report, is ultimately submitted to Congress, serving as a yearly nationwide check-in.

The PIT count is important for a number of reasons. “It’s like the census,” explained Kayla Knotts, an employee at Columbus House and my team leader on the night of the count. And like the census, the PIT count’s primary use is to justify funding. “If our numbers go way up then we’ve got a real problem and we need to use that data to advocate for more resources to address the problem,” said Cunningham. “It’s important for the city to know, when we apply for city funds; its important for the Connecticut Department of Housing to know, when we go to the state for funding.” The PIT count is an economic assessment as much as it is a social one. It’s a snapshot in time, an attempt to codify a characteristically amorphous population.

So, the numbers matter. When they’re low, they’re a marker of progress; when they’re high, they’re a marker of need. But the actual accuracy of the PIT count is widely disputed. The homeless — and particularly the unsheltered homeless — are transient. Someone might spend all night walking around New Haven, and miss being counted altogether. The day after the count, I met Juanita Y. on Broadway — a woman known unofficially to Yale students as ‘the poetry lady,’ who has struggled with homelessness in the past. When I told her the numbers from last year’s count, she burst into laughter. “Oh, there are way more people than that. It’s not a set number. People get housing, and then they lose it.” Those familiar with the homeless community understand that an accurate count is nearly impossible.

On Jan. 12, 2017, Governor Dannel P. Malloy announced that Connecticut was able to connect every chronically homeless individual with permanent housing, effectively proclaiming an end to chronic homelessness. Yale students probably find this declaration puzzling — there are some homeless people, on York Street or Broadway, who we’ve seen every day since we arrived in New Haven. This discrepancy speaks to the mixed delivery of information being disseminated about homelessness. What we see as we move through the city conflicts with what the state claims; what the homeless know from experience differs from what the PIT count may profess to be true.

Shelter comes in many forms. Especially in the winter, people are likely to take cover wherever they can, sleeping in hallways, under bridges, in empty lots. The range of places where people seek cover during the cold months puts serious limitations on the scope of the PIT count. “How could we ever count everybody on the street at night?” asked Cunningham, when I brought up the question of accuracy. “We don’t go into abandoned buildings, we don’t go deep into the woods. We are going to miss people. We know that.” The small sampling of locations surveyed means that data collected in the PIT count represents an estimate that is conservative — if not altogether wrong.

Even so, they have to start from somewhere. “We need the PIT count to put a line in the sand in order to start measuring somewhere,” explained Christie Stewart, the Director of Development for New Reach, the homeless services organization in New Haven that coordinated the region’s Youth Count last week. “But it’s a serious misrepresentation of the real numbers.” Yet Cunningham contended that there is somewhat of a silver lining, arising from the stock of data collected over the past 12 years. “Is it completely accurate? No. Does it give us an idea of where we are? Yes. Because if you do the same methodology year after year after year, you’re going to start to see some trends.” In Connecticut, this data has trended downward. Last year, Connecticut counted 3,387 people experiencing homelessness, with 543 of those in New Haven. This reflects a 13 percent statewide decrease from the year before, and a 24 percent statewide decrease from 2007.

Efforts to improve the accuracy of the PIT count have taken several forms. The first is a switch to a digital data collection system, via the “Counting Us” app. Prior to 2017, all the counts were done with paper surveys. Cunningham recalled, “The data — especially in the early 2000’s, when we first started doing this — was awful.” Transferring to a digital system has helped to keep better track of the numbers and streamline methods of counting between different regions.

But more importantly, HUD has made efforts in the past few years to target populations that are especially underrepresented in the general PIT count — specifically, homeless and unstably housed youth, between the ages of 13 and 24. “Youth are terribly hard to count,” said Stewart. “They’re couch surfing, or hanging at friends’ [houses]… they aren’t typically the folks you find, the chronic homeless, on the Green.”

The first Youth Count in Connecticut was performed in 2015. Unlike the PIT count, the Youth Count is performed over more than a single point in time. In an attempt to identify struggling youth in a more diverse range of settings, the Youth Count occurs over the course of an entire week — this year, spanning from Jan. 24 to 30. “Each region has their own method for counting youth, though in Greater New Haven, this year’s tactic has included meeting youth literally where they are at in their community,” explained explained Caitlin Rose, New Reach’s Youth Program Manager and the coordinator for the New Haven regional Youth count. This includes places that offer youth services, like Marrakech Inc. and Youth Continuum, as well as schools, stores, hospitals, motels, food pantries, and sports games.

The Youth Count is rooted in the idea of youth counting other youth. For a population that’s so difficult to keep track of, harnessing community knowledge is necessary — youth know where other youth are. A handful of Yale students through Yale Hunger Homelessness Action Progress (YHHAP) participated in counting this year, volunteering to staff Youth Continuum during designated hours. The majority of volunteers, however, were youth who have had personal experience with homelessness.

I met Mike Smalls on Saturday morning at the Milford Mall. He was sitting on a stool in the food court, drinking a big pink smoothie and holding a small stack of Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards — an incentive for homeless youth to fill out the Youth Count’s survey. He’s a senior at Hillhouse High School and told me that he’s been homeless more than seven times. “Right now I stay at my father’s house, but it’s unstable, so at any time I could not be there… Like, the last snowstorm in New Haven, I was actually outside. I was outside and I slept on the porch.” I asked him if he had had a sleeping bag. “No, but I had a coat on. I had three pairs of pants on, and I had a smaller jacket, a windbreaker, and a coat. It was freezing. It’s not easy.”

Homeless youth, as such a vulnerable population, are defined more broadly than homeless adults — allowing for service organizations to provide more aggressive and targeted aid to those in need. HUD defines a homeless person as, “someone in a shelter or who is living in a place not meant for human habitation.” For youth, however, the definition is more nuanced, consisting of four categories. Category One is literal homelessness — someone staying in a place not meant for human habitation. Category Two is imminent homelessness. This is someone who is couch-surfing, but who will be homeless within the next 14 days. Category Three is homelessness under federal statutes — for example, someone who is homeless due to a natural disaster. And Category Four is homelessness as a result of domestic violence or sex trafficking. When I asked Smalls what his definition of youth homelessness was, he was more succinct. “There’s two,” he replied. “Homeless could mean unstably housed, meaning you don’t know how long you can stay. And then there’s the homeless where you’re actually on a bench.”

Over the course of the week of the Youth Count, volunteers are meant to survey homeless youth wherever they find them. Smalls worked shifts at the mall and at a soup kitchen, but he was free and encouraged to survey people at all times of day. The Youth Count promises anonymity to those it surveys. To avoid counting someone twice, surveyors ask for the youth’s initials and date of birth. The hope, with these approaches, is to reach as many homeless or unstably housed youth as possible — especially those who normally pass undetected.

I asked Smalls how he can tell when someone is homeless. He responded, “[people] will have clothes… maybe they’re baggy or maybe they’ve been worn a couple days. Or someone who looks really really tired… Or some people, you see them walk back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, obviously they’re bored but they’re staying somewhere warm… You know, you’ll find people.” As we walked through the mall, looking for potential youth to survey, he seemed only to glance at people as they walked by. I got the feeling that it was something of a sixth sense.

Smalls had surveyed three people at the Mall that day before I arrived, but we didn’t find anyone else once I got there. He was disappointed, and kept saying that he wanted to find someone to survey. “Man, I’m sad! There’s no one…” Then he backtracked. “But I mean, it’s a good thing if you don’t find someone, because they’re not — yeah.” Smalls is voicing the central conflict of both the Youth Count and the PIT count: volunteers aim to reach as many people as possible, while also hoping that less people qualify for the count than the year before. Some even make a competition out of it — on the night of the PIT count, one of my team members remarked, “My first year, it was super competitive between all the other teams [about] who could get the most.” People went crazy, she said, over how many surveys they could complete. With each name successfully added to the count comes the discovery of another person’s suffering.

The night before, Smalls had counted fifteen people. Some were at the mall, but most of them had been on the bus or at the bus stop. This points to the way the Youth Count should expand in the future, he told me. “They should go to more schools. Not during the school day, because everyone’s there. But after school… the kids will stay after school extra time just to stay warm, until they can’t.” Smalls had gone to his school to ask if he could shower there, and they referred him to the Youth Continuum, who paid him to work for the Youth Count.

Last year’s Youth Count estimated 4,396 youth across the state experiencing homelessness, with 769 of those people in the Greater New Haven area — including surrounding towns like Milford. Given the expanse of the New Haven region, Rose thinks that, compared to the statewide estimate, that number is low. “It’s safe to assume that there may be more housing unstable young people found and surveyed this year, thus leading to a higher number than we have seen before.”

The two counts have different limitations. For the PIT count, it’s an issue of time and place; for the Youth Count, it’s an issue of visibility. But both counts must confront the same stigma surrounding the homeless. “People are embarrassed,” Smalls remarked. “Not everybody smells the nicest when they’re homeless.” For something that isn’t inherently shameful, the image of homelessness persists as something shrouded in guilt and secrecy. No one wants to admit that they’ve lost their home — especially not to a stranger. Even Gibbs, the first man we surveyed, who was so eager to talk, had initially claimed that he lived in an apartment across the street — only admitting his situation after further probing.

A few days after the PIT count, I went to Sunrise Café — a free weekday breakfast café operated by Liberty Community Services. I wanted to get a sense of how some people who had experienced homelessness felt about this standardized process of counting. The vast majority of people I spoke with had no idea that the PIT count existed. Many of them had been in shelters on the night of the count and were, indeed, counted, albeit unknowingly. But others had been on the street for years and never recalled being counted. “I’ve been homeless about going on three years,” said Fred, aged 56. “No, I wasn’t counted this week. Right now, I’m sleeping on somebody’s couch. It’s a day to day thing. From day to day, I don’t know whose couch I’m gonna be on.”