PIT Count 2013 – Experience, Thoughts and Reflections

Our team began our count around midnight. The weather was warm for a winter night, but rainy – and on the heels of several very cold days. There were approximately 10 of us – an outreach worker and ten volunteers. In addition to the count, we were conducting interviews and providing resources to those we counted/interviewed. Our assigned region was fairly large – a ten-minute drive by car to get from north-to-south or east-to-west. Since our team leader knew of an individual living in the northern most part of our assigned area, this is where we went first. We learned that the individual had constructed his own home and preferred to be left on his own. He refused the interview and resources. We filled out our tally form, and then moved on to our next stop.

We next stopped to speak with a man living in the crevices of a bridge. He also refused the survey & resources. We stopped at a gas station – and spoke with another two men. One accepted the resources but declined the interview. The second man accepted the resources and completed an interview – the first of the night. We then drove down a side street — where we saw a woman sleeping on the porch of an abandoned house. Three of us approached her – she denied both resources and interview.

Following this, we stopped at another gas station, where we spoke with three individuals — one of whom was a female youth. She completed the interview and accepted the resources. We also spoke with a youngish man and another man. At this stop, I conducted one of the interviews with a 56 year old male who said he had been living on the streets for many years. When asked if he experienced mental illness, he stated he believed that sadness is normal and he feels it frequently – but does not self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. He clearly wanted to talk with someone – so much so that it was challenging to stay on target. When asked if he would like a place to stay for the night, he said he did not because he would just stay up all night (it is safer that way) and sleep all day.

After this, we drove by an individual sleeping on a porch. Several people went to interview the individual. According to the man, although he was sleeping on the porch of the house, his relatives were sleeping inside. They would not let him in because of the children in the household. He completed the interview – and accepted the resources. This prompted the question, though – if this were an enclosed porch, wouldn’t it constitute living doubled-up/couch-surfing (as opposed to street homeless)? It is his stable place to sleep — and all that differentiates it is that it is not enclosed.

We continued to drive through our assigned region. We found three men sleeping on the ground outside a building. While all three accepted resources, only one man agreed to an interview. Notably, the third man said that he was not homeless – just hanging out with two friends after a night of drinking. This interview felt somewhat uncomfortable – as not only were there many of us physically present but he was surrounded by his peers (this clearly reduced the privacy of his response… so much so that his friend responded to several questions for him). As we finished the interview, it began raining heavily. We left and drove by a local park, but did not see anyone – nor did we get out to look.

Then we drove to a local hospital. There were two men sleeping in the waiting area. One man woke up and was interviewed by one of the volunteers (and given resources). There were four more men, and one woman, in the emergency department. Three were sleeping soundly – and thus we could not talk with them. One person was awake – but declined an interview; a second person was awake and agreed to an interview. In total, seven individuals were counted, and two were interviewed.

We then went to the train station. On our way, we stopped by a subway stop – where we saw two individuals. One individual was willing to be interviewed (the other was not).

At the train station, I spoke with a man named WA. WA had been homeless for many years. WA identifies as male – but dresses in gender non-conforming clothes. He has a child, for whom he pays child support. WA said he has a history of child abuse and witnessed considerable violence. He said he feels that sorrow and depression are a normal part of life – and would rather feel them than numb the pain with alcohol & drugs. He says that he received financial support, but lost that and is waiting for a housing voucher. He has made a commitment to live positively this year – including getting housing and writing his memoir. I had hoped to continue talking with WA – but we were approached by a police officer. The police officer interrupted us to ask what we were doing. I explained that it was the night of the PIT – and that we were conducting interviews (and the outreach worker came over to verify this). I was able to continue the interview for a few minutes, but was soon asked to leave. I am not sure if any other individuals were counted during the brief time we were in the train station.

At this point, we had covered our geographic region. It was just about 4am.

Total People Counted: 21; (3 women; 1 female youth; 17 men)

Total People Interviewed: 9; (1 female youth; 8 men)

Emotional response: Overall, the process of conducting the interviews was uncomfortable. The “typical” interview process was that several volunteers would approach one individual. I kept trying to imagine what this would feel like from the individual’s perspective… to all of the sudden, in the middle of the night, to be approached by a large group of people asking for an interview. It felt invasive (as did some of the questions) and I wondered if they truly felt like they could decline participation. The survey itself seemed dehumanizing and potentially traumatizing.

Methods: I am not convinced that a) we found everyone we could or that b) the interviews are at all representative. The weather was warm, but rainy. The staff at the hospital said that the waiting room is usually packed with 50 or more people, but it was remarkably empty on the night of the count. Additionally, I know for a fact that we did not visit several places frequent by those without homes. We had a 50% response rate for the interviews (not adequate by research standards). People on other teams also reported counting a low number of people – and conducting even fewer interviews. Notably, because we could not wake people, we only interviewed two people at the VA (even though there were seven people there) – because five people were sleeping soundly. Would doing the count at an earlier hour make a difference in the number of people we could find and/or interview? To what degree did the weather and other contextual factors influence the count? Additionally, people asked questions about what words/terms on the structured interview meant – leaving it to my (or another volunteer’s) interpretation of what words meant (for instance, “serious mental illness”).

All in all, it was an eye-opening experience that makes me wonder how much more we will really know about the number of individuals experiencing homelessness once the data are counted. The only thing that seems certain is that it was clearly an undercount of the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in the region. The only question is by how much? With regard to the interviews, given the low response rate, what does it really tell us about who is homeless and what their experiences are?


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