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    There are night owls and early birds, but I have yet to hear of anyone who does their best work when they wake up at 3:30 a.m. As someone who is not a night owl or an early bird, and has many more similarities to a sloth than to a bird of any variety, waking up at that hour for the 2016 Coalition for the Homeless’ Street Count was no picnic. However, as I constantly reminded myself throughout that morning, it was absolutely nothing compared to the struggles of those we were counting.

    The Street Count happens once each year in Louisville, in an attempt to count and survey all of those sleeping on the streets. The count takes place from 4 to 6 a.m.—hours that are chosen so that only the most vulnerable are counted. At this time of year, and at that time of night, most of those who have friends to stay with temporarily, or who are aware and able to use one of Louisville’s shelters will take advantage of those resources. The people who were counted had no other options, and are therefore most in need of resources, making these the numbers that the Coalition for the Homeless uses when applying for grants (which total over $10 million) from the state.

    Last year, 71 homeless people were counted on the Louisville street. This year’s count grew to 112, including 14 women, 94 men and four people whose sex is unknown. But according to Catherine McGeeny, Director of Development for the Coalition for the Homeless, this “could have been because the weather was milder; we also had more volunteers, which means you were able to cover more ground and potentially find more people.” As one of a group of 280 volunteers (“We’ve never had a crowd this large,” said Natalie Harris, Executive Director for the Coalition for the Homeless during our training the night before—last year’s numbered 230), I set out with my group of four to try to do some good.

     

    Training Session, 6 p.m. the night before:

    I arrive with my grandparents at Hotel Louisville, just a few minutes early. They are the ones who told me about this event, having heard from it themselves from a friend who’s done it for years. I was easily convinced—seeing this as both an opportunity to do my part in Louisville’s community, and as a potential story for my internship (a selfish thought that dissipated after the event, I promise you that). My grandfather (Poppy) dropped us off at the front door, and my grandmother (Mum Mum) and I headed inside while he looked for a spot in the crowded lot.

    After a few wrong turns and advice from a helpful fellow-volunteer, Mum Mum and I found our way to the training room. A good sized room, filled with chairs that could fit perhaps a little over 200 people, it was completely full of bodies: empty chairs were scant, and after a failed attempt by myself to save three together while Mum Mum chatted and Poppy parked, we found what had to be the last grouping at the very front of the room by the very friend who had convinced them to signup.

    The training was surprisingly brief for a process that seemed to me so nuanced and ripe with conversational land mines. We were told to create groups of four and grab a clipboard that would show our designated count area. My grandparents and I found a friend of my grandmother’s (Deborah) to join us, and I grabbed clipboard 24—a few numbers off from my preferred 21 but close enough so that I wasn’t entirely uncomfortable. Our stretch of road was a few miles along Dixie Highway, including a few underpasses, Valley Traditional High School and a Wal-Mart. This was unexpected to all four of us—for some reason when we’d pictured the count, we’d thought of the city itself with its tall buildings and alleyways, not the surrounding highways.

    After grouping up, a slideshow combined with speakers from the Coalition for the Homeless, told us what to expect. We were told to use our flashlights to illuminate our own faces, not to shine on theirs as we were approaching, and to highlight the fact that we’d have socks, scarves, food and gloves in a “goodie bag” as an incentive to get people to people to answer our questions. In order to count someone, we had to mark whether they were male or female, their name, whether or not they were a veteran, how long they had been on the streets, whether they had completed the common assessment survey (a 50 questions survey assessing someone’s vulnerability on the street). We were also encouraged to ask much more difficult questions: whether they had suffered from domestic abuse, a severe mental illness or alcohol abuse.

    Some of these questions are greeted with incredulous looks from the volunteers. “These seem invasive,” says one woman. “How are we supposed to ask someone if they have a severe mental illness?” A Coalition member explains that it might be helpful to ask if they have seen a therapist in the last six months, or if they are on any medication, but the looks of those around me seem to say that this is less than satisfactory. We are reminded that there are only a few questions we need to ask, and that these others are optional.

    We are also warned that many groups won’t find anyone to count. We may spend two hours looking behind darkened buildings with no results. But, as McGeeny says, “If you don’t find anyone, consider that a good thing.”

    With that, we are sent home with encouragements to sleep (though who can go to sleep—no matter how early they have to get up—at 7:30 p.m. is anyone’s guess). Let the counting begin.

     

    The Count, 3:15 a.m.:

    Oh my God. It is so early. I went to sleep at my usual time of around midnight and am now insanely regretting it. I stumble reluctantly out of my toasty bed and layer up, per instructions. After spending so much time worrying about the count itself, I’d somehow managed to put the mid-night wakeup call out of my mind. Unfortunately, that’s no longer possible.

    My grandparents and I trudge out to the car and drive back to Hotel Louisville, where Mum Mum and I wait in the car while Poppy grabs our clipboard and Deborah from inside (such a gentleman!). Then we set off. It takes over ten minutes to get to our marked underpass, and during that time I nod off to the sound of Poppy drumming his fingers against the steering wheel and Mum Mum and Deborah talking about church and coffee.

    We pull into a gas station off the shoulder, and begin walking. Flashlights out, we decide to tackle one side of the road, then work our way back on the other. Immediately in front of us is an overpass—a spot we’ve been told to make sure we check. Sure enough, at the top of the slanted concrete, right where the road top meets the hill, there is a bundle of rugs that looks like it couldn’t have ended up there naturally. After being warned so many times that we shouldn’t expect to find anyone, this comes as a shock, and we don’t remember our training as well as we should: shining our flashlights on the pile before remembering we were specifically told not to do that.

    Poppy takes the lead with the greeting, “Hello up there! We’re here doing a count of the homeless—would you mind answering a few questions?”

    After a few repetitions of this—finally combined with the offer of socks once we remember them—a head pokes up from the bundle. We teeter toward the person (who is now revealed to be male) and I hand him the socks. Poppy asks the questions, while I jot down the answers. Wayne has been on the streets for almost a year, and isn’t a veteran. The questions about alcoholism and mental illness go unasked: we may have been trained, but in the moment, it just doesn’t seem right to ask this man who we’ve awoken from his sleep on the ground under a busy underpass any more prying questions than necessary.

    We thank Wayne, and walk away, agreeing that those last questions were just too much, and debating whether it had been a piece of foam or a slab of concrete that he had been using as a pillow. We duck behind abandoned-looking buildings, and shine our lights into the wooded areas just off the road for maybe 30 minutes, before Poppy decides we should head back to the car and drive up the road for a bit so the walk back isn’t as far. We agree, and it’s a good thing we do, since after re-checking the map and confirming on my iPhone, we realize we’ve been headed in the wrong direction. Wayne’s underpass should have been just out of our range, but instead was the first place we looked.

    Turning around, we realize that in the time we have left the miles of highway we have left would be impossible to check on foot, so we stay in the car as we head to the Wal-mart parking lot—a place we’ve been specifically told to check. It is deserted, as is the Valley High Lot and numerous darkened buildings along our stretch. It is with mixed emotions that we decided our count number will remain at one for the night. We are hopeful that Wayne is the only one sleeping out here, but worried that we may have missed someone.

    As we turn to head back to the hot food and warm beds that we—now more than ever—realize we are so lucky to have waiting for us, Deborah muses aloud that it’s too bad we hadn’t given Wayne everything in our goodie bag, since we hadn’t ended up needing it for anyone else. Poppy agrees, and rather than just leaving it at that, heads back to the underpass where we found him. He pulls over to the shoulder, hops out, and shouts up to Wayne “we’ve got more food and socks down here if you want it!” Wayne yells down an affirmative, and Poppy leaves the bag for Wayne to pick up when he moves on. As we drive away for the second time, I wonder where he’s headed today, and whether or not he’ll end up back under the underpass tomorrow night.

    Image: Coalition for the Homeless

    Nettie Finn's picture

    About Nettie Finn

    DePauw University student, currently pursuing an English Writing BA and graduating this coming May. Pastimes include binge reading, attempting to discover a diet that is both healthy and consists solely of carbs, and doing my best to discover new music before my family does.

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