Walking With the Homeless

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

Last Wednesday night I walked the streets of New Bedford, bundled in more layers of clothing than I ever wore while working outdoors on fisheries projects in Alaska. The air temperature had plummeted to the low 20s, and the wind chill was bitter for the start of the 2014 Point-in-Time (PIT) Homeless Count, conducted in communities throughout the United States. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires the number of persons experiencing homelessness (whether sheltered or unsheltered) to be annually counted, and briefly surveyed if possible. Urban Initiative project manager Colleen Dawicki, graduate research assistant Katya Starostina, and I joined more than forty other volunteers who fanned out across New Bedford on January 29-30 to conduct the annual 24-hour count. Carrying clipboards, survey sheets, and backpacks full of warm socks, hats, and canned food, we left our headquarters at the Sister Rose House on Eighth Street, and began to walk the blocks from County Street east toward the downtown district.

Last year in New Bedford, volunteers found 338 homeless persons, 119 of whom were in unsheltered conditions. That number seems likely to rise when all the data are assessed for 2014.

As we walked, Colleen, Katya and I asked passersby whether they had secured housing for the evening. Some people who, judging by their clothes and behavior, seemed likely to be housed – perhaps even likely to own a home – turned out not to have any place to stay that night. I conducted my first interview on Union Street with a young man who I thought was probably an undergraduate student at the downtown Star Store campus of UMass Dartmouth. As I introduced myself to him, I thought I was merely going to get some practice in asking a stranger whether he had housing for the night. I didn’t really expect him to tell me he was homeless, but he did, and I reached for my pencil and a survey form. Like most of the homeless people our group spoke with, the young man was cordial, well-spoken, and willing to be interviewed so that community organizers and government officials might gain a greater awareness and understanding of homelessness in America. We offered him, and the many others we met that night, the contents of our backpacks and a “Street Sheet” brochure, produced by the Homeless Service Providers’ Network, that described available support services.

We wished each individual well and moved on, seeking the next interview, which was never long in coming. As researchers, we were conflicted: was it “good” that we were interviewing so many people and gathering so much information… or was it bad for New Bedford, and the nation, that on a bitterly cold winter night we walked among so many homeless persons, many of whom reported educational attainments or life experiences not dissimilar to our own.

After a few hours, I walked back up the hill toward my comfortable home, while the homeless walked toward an emergency shelter, a church hall, a friend’s apartment with a sofa to lie on, or perhaps a pile of blankets under a bridge.

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