Once a year, the city looks them in the eye. The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a census of “persons who are spending the night in a place not meant for human habitation.” Across the nation, volunteers fan out to count homeless populations, always on one night, because the population is mobile, and usually one night in the last ten days of January.
They are the people we spend most of the year looking away from. “They are the untouchables,” says Linda Roby, an associate minister of First United Methodist Church in Dallas. When, on the night of the Point in Time Census, volunteers shake their hands and pretend they’re really neighbors in the community, there are rewards on both sides. Often, on the part of the census taker, that reward is simply a window into what your own life might be.
The survey is organized in Dallas by the Metro Dallas Housing alliance. Teams of four or five volunteers canvass defined areas of the city by car, and when a person who might be homeless is spotted, one or two members of the team approach that person and gently ask a list of questions. This year, the questionnaire was loaded into a smart phone app which aids consistency and collation.
My team member Roy VanDever and I found the first subject of the night in a place some might not expect: a fast food restaurant on Gaston Avenue. It turns out that fast food restaurants are often the only refuge for people with no place to go.
Barbara, I’ll call her, is such a person. She is sitting by herself off the lobby in a side room, bathed in florescent light, with a cracked phone plugged into a wall outlet and a small bag full of her possessions on the bench next to her. She’s wearing a sweatshirt, a winter coat and a stocking cap, and appears relieved for someone to talk to. She has much to discuss, even if it’s with two strangers who seem to have come out of nowhere. At age 35, she is pregnant with her sixth child.
Barbara’s been homeless seven times and is the victim of domestic violence, she tells us, responding to specific questions in the survey. She can quit the interview at any time, but she wants to go on, wants us to know why she is here. “I know some of this is my fault, but not all of it,” she says. Her father beat her. The last man she was with beat her, too. Soon, her face is bathed in silent tears. After applying to every agency she, and we, know of, she has nowhere to go. Her baby is due in two weeks.
Can we help her?
We can offer a small fleece blanket and a protein bar.
This year’s count couldn’t have been accomplished without the help of two churches. First United Methodist Church, downtown, and Wilshire Baptist on Mockingbird.
Several hundred volunteers reported to First United Methodist, a contingent of about a thousand who participated citywide. That’s about twice as many as last year, according to Cindy Crain, CEO of the Metro Dallas Housing Alliance. Crain says churches are critical in accomplishing the homeless count.
As an urban church, First United Methodist is proactive in embracing what Senior Minister Andrew Stoker calls its ‘homeless neighbors.’ Each year on All Saints Day in the fall, First United Methodist holds a multi-denominational Light and Remembrance service to memorialize the people without homes who have died on Dallas streets.
“We wanted to engage more people (in the congregation) with individuals. Learning their stories. Knowing more about them,” says Reverend Linda Roby, an associate minister of First United Methodist. “Knowing their name is a starting place, and knowing the issue (of homelessness) but getting engaged in a conversation is that next step.”
“When it comes to our work with the homeless, it’s truly about raising that mirror to our community and saying everyone has dignity and everyone one is claimed by a loving presence,” says Pastor Andrew Stoker.
Dallas homeless population has been rising. Last year it was about 3,900 which is up from 3,100 the year before. The homeless count just completed will be released March 9.