Mark Hayward’s City Matters: Middle-of-the-night vigil provides homeless headcount
In two years, the federal government will take its 10-year head count of the country’s population, and we’ll get a sense of how many men and women, whites and minorities, kids and seniors live in the United States.
Overnight Tuesday, the federal government took a census of the hundreds of homeless people in the city.
Unlike the regular census, this one takes place every year. Homeless people don’t have an address, so no form with bureaucratic-type questions gets mailed to them.
Rather, about 25 people — nearly all volunteers — combed streets, parks and parking lots of Manchester. They went with clipboards, flashlights and, if they were smart enough to prepare, spikes on their boots.
They counted and jotted notes of where they found people, their gender and a general description.
The volunteers went in teams of four or five. Each team had two routes to cover, meaning they put in at least three miles on foot.
“It’s like a scavenger hunt. Here’s your territory; see if you can find somebody,” said one volunteer, Mary Chevalier, founder of 1269 Cafe, an outreach ministry that provides lunch, support and church services in the downtown area.
The homeless census is termed the Point in Time count, and it takes place across the country in late January. (Nashua is the only other city in New Hampshire to take the count.)
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities that receive federal money for homeless programs to conduct the count.
I joined a team that included Kuhn, the state director of HUD and a homeless outreach worker for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “They look at the data and say ‘How well are communities doing in resolving this issue?’ It certainly has funding implications,” said Cathy Kuhn, director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness.
We met at 2 a.m. Wednesday at the Families in Transition building on Market Street. It was the second night of ice in the city, and foot travel was treacherous. If the population figure, which won’t be released for months, is down this year, it’s because counters were more focused on their steps than people sleeping on a park bench.
Manchester is a different beast when asleep.
There are few signs of life at night, save for an occasional car or crunch of a boot on ice. The city’s new LED streetlights burn tiny, glaring holes in the pitch of the clear night. Your eye picks up any moving shadow.
Shadows like Janet Maibet, who is walking along an Elm Street sidewalk near Pearl Street. She’s pushing a shopping cart and has a terrier-sized dog on a leash beside her.
Maibet said she isn’t homeless, but has been in the past. She’s currently living in an apartment that the Manchester Mental Health Mobile Crisis Response Team set up for her, she said. It’s tough living on the street, she said.
“There’s no love or care for people around here,” Maibet said.
She guesses that at least 250 homeless people live in the city. Last year’s Point in Time count recorded 394 homeless in Manchester. Most sleep in shelters, and agencies such as New Horizons counted people Tuesday night. Our nighttime task was a search for the “unsheltered” homeless.
Some teams visited known homeless camps. Others hit parking lots of big box retailers in Manchester and Hooksett, where people sleep in cars.
The count takes place in the predawn hours to make sure people are settled in, Kuhn said. We’re told not to wake anyone or ask questions. Just write down a number and description.
We pass a mound of subzero-rated sleeping bags and outdoor gear on a downtown Elm Street sidewalk. In her nine years of doing this, it’s the first time that Kuhn has seen people sleeping on Elm Street in the downtown, she said.
The team barely slows its cold-weather stride as it walks by. Kuhn counts one.
“It was definitely three people. I’ve been doing it awhile,” said Gregory Carson, who runs HUD programs in New Hampshire.
Our route eventually takes us up Bridge Street, nearly to Trinity High School. Then we walk down Lowell and Concord streets. The only sign of life is a skunk who stops its foraging to stare us down.
Veteran counters say homeless people never sleep in residential neighborhoods. If they’re not in a camp, they prefer the safety of the center city, where help is a holler away. Others have cars. But a quick freeze late Tuesday coated nearly all car windows with ice, making it impossible to peer inside.
The one person we counted in a car had the engine running and clear windows.
All together, our team counted five, and then two more after I left around 4:30 a.m. That’s more than the one that Chevalier and her team counted.
Chevalier has done the count nearly every year since she and her husband opened 1269 Cafe. She likes to experience the city in its bleak, lonely time. All is still. And then the day gathers as people rouse to start early jobs.
“The curious part of me,” she said, “wants to see what the city is like at 2 and 5 in the morning.”