“Isabella” sits across the kitchen table from me at the Cold Weather Shelter at Zion Episcopal Church. Her eyes peek out suspiciously from a curtain of hair—it is clear she is not happy to be participating in the Homeless Point in Time Survey, an anonymous measurement of the number of people experiencing homelessness across the United States during a particular 24-hour period in January.
One of her street buds talked her into it, convincing her that it might help her to get housing. Isabella, like everyone surveyed, have been told the survey is entirely voluntary and each person has the right to choose which questions they will answer.
Isabella answers the questions about the first initial of her first name, the first initial of her last name, and the third letter of her last name, how long she has been homeless, how many times she has been homeless over the past three years, where she is staying now (“Here, duh!”), does she have children, etc.
Then, she reaches across the table and stops my hand as I write down her answers.
“This is going to help me to get a house, right?” she asks.
I tell her the information goes to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and is used to help determine how and where funds will be allotted to serve people experiencing homelessness.
“But you church people, you’re going to help me get a house, right?”
The answer — that the churches in Charles Town, Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown are banding together to help provide shelter and food for homeless people, but that we do not yet have permanent housing for them, although that is one of our long-range aims — does not please Isabella.
She pulls the blue sheet with the tiny print from my side of the table, folds it in quarters, and tears it into thin strips. “I already got enough people poking their nose in my business. If this isn’t going to go to get me a house now, then I don’t want to participate.”
She stands up decisively, and looks around for her friend “Angie.”
“No offense to you. I know you’re trying to help. But I need a place to live now, not when the federal government decides to make the funds available. And besides, I think some people get a thrill from asking people who are having hard times about their business.” She looks at me pointedly, and walks out of the kitchen.
For the third year in a row, I have conducted interviews for the survey. This year, working overnight at the Cold Weather Shelter, I have interviewed more people than in the previous two years combined. I have learned just what a fiction it is that Jefferson County has no homeless people — three of the people I have interviewed so far have lived here their entire lives.
I also have discovered some people are much more willing than Isabella to share the basics of homelessness with a survey. Isabella’s friend Angie, the one who talked her into doing the survey, shares more than the survey asks, and probably more than she should, although none of the interviewers would use any of the information she offers against her.
However, that same night at the shelter, more than 20 people ate the dinner provided by Zion Episcopal Church, but only 12 decided to participate in the survey. Even when they learn what it is for, and where the information goes, and how the initials of the name are used only to make sure that the individuals do not take the survey more than once, they prefer to maintain the shreds of privacy that are still left to them.
The survey provides a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons from either the last biennial count or a more recent annual count. According to HUD, counts are based on the number of persons in households without children; the number of persons in households with at least one adult and one child; and the number of persons in households with only children. The counts are further broken down into categories that include counts of persons who are chronically homeless, persons with severe mental illness, chronic substance abusers, veterans, persons with HIV/AIDS, victims of domestic violence and unaccompanied children.
For some reason, the government, in its wisdom, decided to conduct the survey in January, which results in a significant undercount because some people who are normally on the street are seeking shelter from the cold with friends or family.
As the hours pass towards the 10 p.m. lights out at the shelter, the people lining up to take the survey diminishes.
Isabella comes back. “I really didn’t mean to be rude. Angie says you are all right. I guess I am just tired of answering questions; it seems like that is all I do these days.”
Later that night, one of the women is crying and shaking, and all of us gather in a circle to pray with her, and for each of us. When her turn comes, Angie says, “You know, Lord, we are just looking for another chance to get it right, and I pray that for each woman here.”
So do I. That night, as night turned to morning I prayed that the survey, one more statistical/sociological/governmental tool, will ultimately provide the means for at least a few of these folks to find a way to get out of the cycle of homelessness, and to “get it right.”