A rare warm evening leads volunteers to count many homeless people without shelter
Volunteers with the 2019 Point-In-Time (PIT) count to determine the size and character of the city’s homeless population met Johnny Queen, a 60-year-old street minister, sleeping in the portico of St John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square. He agreed to answer their questions and summarize his life story, happy to act as witness for the homeless individuals sleeping outside during the coldest part of the year.
“Sir? Sir? We’re with outreach. Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” one volunteer asked.
Queen’s head, kept warm by a hat, emerged from below several thick blankets into the cold January night air.
“Hmmm? Oh yes, go right ahead,” he said.
One volunteer asked Queen about himself: age, ethnicity, sexual orientation. About his history: addiction, abuse, health issues. And about his future: what plans does he have for moving past homelessness? They took down the details of his life on a form, offered him a gift card for a couple of Subway sandwiches, and wished him a good night. Queen pulled his blankets back over his head and returned to sleep beneath the columns of the church.
Similar scenes played out thousands of times on Jan. 23, as local volunteers canvassed the District while across the country, others did the same. The PIT count serves as an annual snapshot of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development jurisdictions known as Continuums of Care. The survey is conducted in January because the expectation is that on a cold night shelters will operate at high capacity. Since counting people inside shelters is more straightforward than finding them on the street, having PIT on a cold night increases the accuracy of the count. Accuracy is important because PIT provides crucial information for policymakers on the demographics, needs, and size of the homeless community.
Volunteers assigned to the McPherson Square area encountered many men sleeping near subway exits, in narrow arcades, and in practically any other enclosed space. Willy Walker, with his head poking out of a tattered sleeping bag, said he had tried shelters, but found them too violent. Walker has been homeless for seven or eight years and would be termed ‘chronically homeless’ by the survey. When asked his age, he answered “59,” before adding with some disbelief, “I’m going to be 60 this year.” Russell Melvin, who was lying a few feet from Walker, was optimistic because he would be moving into a subsidized apartment soon. The volunteers cheered and congratulated him and made note of his situation.
Melvin is a beneficiary of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s collaboration with Pathways to Housing to implement a housing-first strategy that provides housing to homeless individuals without first requiring strict behavioral changes. Previous programs have required consistent sobriety and steady employment from homeless individuals before tentatively extending them subsidized housing. Housing First reverses this proposition, banking on the dignity and convenience of a private home to enable individuals to achieve and maintain their health, rather than asking them to stay clean while still living on the street.
So far, the plan is working, although slowly. Information for 2019’s PIT count will not become available until May, but other reports have shown a decline in the number of homeless people in the District over the last three years. Since 2016, overall homelessness has decreased 17 percent and family homelessness has decreased by nearly 40 percent. The 2018 PIT count reported 6,904 total persons experiencing homelessness in D.C., down from 7,473 in 2017. The most dramatic drop in surveyed groups came in the 1,210 adults in families counted, down nearly 25 percent from 1,609 the year before. However, in the same period, the number of single homeless adults increased slightly, from 3,583 to 3,770. All of those counted by volunteers this year in the vicinity of McPherson Square were in this category.
When asked how they planned to cope with freezing temperatures, respondents to the survey had similar answers. “Hope”, “Prayer”, and “A few more of these blankets” all came up more than once. Mr. Queen summed up the risk, stating, “To make it out here in the cold, you need to be prepared. You can’t come out here with nothing.”