By Mary Otto
U.S Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan paused with his clipboard to fill out a form for a man settling down for the night in icy Franklin Square Park.
U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Director Barbara Poppe questioned a weathered fellow wrapped in a gray blanket, sheltered in the doorway of a bank on K Street.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Scott Gould interviewed a homeless man wandering the snowy night, who spoke about his failure to graduate high school.
“He seemed embarrassed about it to this day,” Gould observed.
The high-ranking federal officials joined the army of volunteers who headed out on Jan. 27 to patrol the District’s streets, alleys and parks to gather data for the Washington metropolitan region’s 11th annual homeless count.
The effort, officially known as a point-in-time enumeration, is meant to capture a one-day snapshot of the region’s homeless population within nine Washington metropolitan jurisdictions. Meanwhile, the same process is going on nationwide.
For a single day and night each year, volunteers in virtually every community in the United States pitch in to interview homeless individuals and families in soup kitchens, emergency and day shelters, campsites and transitional and permanent supportive housing programs. The responses they collect are then compiled and assembled into local and national annual reports. According to HUD, 643,000 homeless people were included in the 2009 count.
Over the years, the information gathered has begun to give a clearer idea about the needs of America’s homeless people, the causes of their homelessness and even solutions to homelessness, said Donovan, speaking to volunteers as they headed out from the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Northwest Washington, with clipboards and questionnaires in hand to start their night of counting and interviewing.
“These things just look like clipboards. But they can change the world,” said Donovan. “When I got out of college, most people thought that homelessness was a problem that could not be solved. That the chronically homeless would never get off the streets,” he said.
But local and national efforts geared toward placing physically and mentally disabled homeless people into supportive housing programs that address their needs have started to have an impact, said Donovan.
“We have reduced chronic homelessness by one third in the past five years.”
According to HUD, the number of chronically homeless people in the country dropped from nearly 176,000 in 2005 to roughly 111,000 in 2009.
In the District, more than 1,000 homeless people and families were placed in permanent supportive housing. In spite of such efforts, according to the 2010 count, the District experienced an increase in homelessness last year, although homelessness regionwide declined.
Last year’s count found 6,539 homeless men, women and children. Regionally, 11,774 homeless people were counted.
Federal officials including Donovan say that in spite of the lingering effects of the housing crisis and recession, they hope to end homelessness completely.
Last June, 19 federal agencies and offices that form the US Interagency Council on Homelessness submitted a plan to the President and Congress that aims to put the nation on a path to end veterans and chronic homelessness by 2015 and end family homelessness by 2020.
Such a pledge takes “a lot of courage,” said Gould, who acknowledged the complexity of needs that contribute to veterans’ homelessness. But Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has strongly backed the effort Gould said. The information gathered on the count will help reach the goal he added. “I’m glad we’re here.”
Poppe, who served as executive director of the Columbus, Ohio-based Community Shelter Board for years before she took over as head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has been a longtime participant in the counts. She said she always finds the event bittersweet-comforting in its human contact, but also sobering and sad in its findings.
“I confront the fact that I have been unsuccessful in my mission to end homelessness,” she said.
Near the end of the evening Poppe spotted a man, huddled in the frigid doorway of the bank, near the automatic teller machine. He looked old and tired. He said he was resting his feet, waiting for the nightclubs to close so he could go out and shake his cup and beg for change. He said he was on a list for housing.
“I hope you get off the streets real soon,” she told him before she left him.
Back out on the street she remembered the McDonald’s gift card in her pocket.
Count organizers had given them out to volunteers before they left the church, to pass along to some of the homeless people they met for helping with the survey. Poppe paused in the cold, then turned around and went back into the bank. She gave the card to man trying to stay warm there. He thanked her and tucked it into his ragged grey blanket.