Region Forward Blog

Reactions from the Homeless Count: Alicia Lewis Part One

Jan 28, 2011


On Wednesday while most of us were busy prepping for the impending snowstorm and trying to decide the best way to get home some folks in our region were trying to figure out how best to stay warm and dry during the storm. Two COG Housing Planners took part in the annual count of the region’s homeless population. Below is Alicia Lewis’ recount of her day participating in Prince George’s County’s count.

COG staff volunteered to count the unsheltered homeless population with Prince George’s County staff and volunteers. We drove in heavy rains early Wednesday morning to the County’s volunteer meeting place. While we were inside a warm dry car what was on our minds was whether the count would be successful given that many of the homeless probably would not be outdoors in their usual places due to the bad weather. While we believed many of them would seek shelter in places we weren’t familiar with we struggled with the reality that the County’s count could be lower than previous years which could unintentionally mislead residents and elected officials about the area’s unsheltered homeless population. (NOTE: Prince George’s County is holding a second count today because of complications on Wednesday due to the storm).

Arriving at the meeting place we met two recent retirees. Both women see the count as “ministry” in order to give back in some way to the homeless. One of the ladies cried the day before during the County’s enumeration training; she spoke of hoping that she’d be able to contain her emotions when speaking with the unsheltered homeless people we’d encounter. A more seasoned volunteer shared that the woman’s compassion would reinforce to the homeless that they are human and may have more positive an impact than she could know. The first-time volunteer continued to cry.

Shortly after 9 a.m. we drove to several fast food places liquor stores strip commercial store parking lots and wooded areas looking for homeless persons – many are known to visit and “live” at these sites. As we continued the homeless enumeration our lead social service staff volunteer was thrilled to see “Keith” near his usual spot. She couldn’t believe it was him. After more than two years trying to assist him this was the first time she’d encounter him alert and full of life. Keith graciously completed our survey. He told of his traditional middle class upbringing here in the D.C. area and his optimism that he could have a better life with some help.

The rain and sleet did pose a huge problem with finding homeless persons at their usual spots. After a couple of hours of driving around with limited success we encountered two homeless men standing alone at separate retail establishments along busy roads. One of the men stood quietly outside a major department store within a well traveled retail mall. We would not have recognized him if we didn’t learn what to look for or had not been driving extremely slow (we were given a brief training prior to the count). The other man stood under the overhang of a liquor store to avoid the rain. We called a homeless hotline and reserved beds for each of the two gentlemen at the County’s “Warm Nights” shelter. The men were extremely approachable willing to participate in the survey and grateful for the assistance. Both decided to either walk or take the bus to the Metro rail station where the overnight shelter program’s van would pick them up.

This is part one of Alicia’s report. Part two is available here. COG staff is also updating their Facebook page with photos and reactions from the count.

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