Counting Those Who Don't Count

Recently we’ve been working on our annual attempt to count the homeless. This year we were lucky as we were able to recruit almost 70 volunteers to assist the 9 members of the outreach team and a bunch of staff from UNITY’s other programs. After dark teams scoured the streets of New Orleans searching for New Orleanians who don’t have their own little slice of New Orleans, outside of a ragged piece of cardboard or a hard piece of concrete tucked in a darkened doorway. It’s not the easiest work, especially for people more accustomed to letting their fingers walk through paperwork than actually walking darkened streets. Their efforts were extraordinary, their bravery commendable.

How do you count hidden populations? The answer: leg work, or more appropriately, street work. Before Hurricane Katrina, I had the pleasure of working for the Centers for Disease Control on a research project on HIV high-risk behavior. We piloted a sampling method for the rest of the country on how to find and assess a specific high-risk HIV- susceptible population: injection-drug users (IDU’s). For those unaware of IDU’s, they’re not really a population that sticks out. It’s not like people who shoot heroin advertise their addiction, wearing bright yellow hats that scream “Junkie”. They’re highly paranoid, often dope-sick and hidden better than a plastic baby in a king cake. If you want to find someone who shares syringes, trades sex for drugs or carries a rusty needle in their shoe for a quick fix, you better be prepared to spend considerable time walking lonely blocks in some of the worst neighborhoods of New Orleans. You better be prepared for what you can’t prepare for, anticipate what you can’t anticipate and watch your back while always walking forward. You also have to do it with a smile, a comforting presentation and a street-smart wit. It was great training for homeless outreach.

Sending teams of volunteers, people from all walks of life, like accountants, waiters, EMT’s, consultants, lawyers, homemakers, etc. to count the homeless can be very eye-opening. To spend just four hours counting the mentally ill, the physically disabled and the addicted who make the street their home can be very humbling. While counting the homeless, you’re forced to count your blessings. It’s important work for us and in raising awareness in the community.

That, in a nut-shell, is the street count. You have to count as many homeless people sleeping in the streets as possible in a 24-hour period. However, as this particular blog mostly focuses on, we have another problem in post-Katrina New Orleans: abandoned building dwellers. These are the real needles in the haystack: “the hidden homeless.” We’ve been trying to hone our methods for achieving a comprehensive extrapolated count of abandoned building dwellers, where they’re at and how many there are in 61,000 abandoned buildings in New Orleans. We’ve sat down with sociologists, Ph.D.s, the census folks, consulted with academic journals on hidden population research, attempted multiple sampling procedures using the best information available to us.

What did we learn? First, if Shamus was still in school they’d probably give him a doctorate in sociological extrapolation for hidden population research. Secondly, it doesn’t matter how many sexy equations and statistical formulas you have, it will never replace actual boots on the ground. In my mind, determining the total number of homeless abandoned building dwellers will never be as important as saving just one. While the cold drips through the tattered walls of a formerly flooded shot-gun and a flickering candle is the only light to displace the darkness, our clients aren’t worried about Point In-Time counts. They’re worried about survival.


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