Wearing comfortable boots and warm layers, I walked through the chilly night along Massachusetts Avenue towards Thomas Circle. Passing 16th Street, I gazed down rows of city buildings framing the illuminated White House and Washington Monument, icons of American history. I smiled at this quintessential Washington, D.C. moment where I clearly saw where I was and why. I was in our nation’s capital, about to take part in D.C.’s 2013 Point in Time (PIT) Homeless Census, because I wanted to participate in our country’s history of social change.
In the summer of 2011, I was a new D.C denizen. While a passion to effect positive change had compelled me to relocate from California, it was my academic studies and community involvement that shaped my commitment to end homelessness. That summer, while basking in the architecture of this epicenter of influence, my attention focused on a homeless man walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. His attire was weathered, his walk worn, and his reactions a picture of mental illness.
As I realized that a homeless man lived without access to essential services in our nation’s nexus of social-structure-changing policy, the surrounding architecture, that moments ago evoked swoons, lost its luster. To revive it, I was determined to both explore the policies needed to right this social wrong and immerse myself in the topic’s complexities. The moment enshrined on this man’s neglected face incited a more universal housing policy discussion.
At the PIT count check-in, volunteers, including Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan and Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, committed their Thursday night to finding and surveying unsheltered community members. The Secretaries’ participation demonstrated the Departments’ commitments to ending homelessness. In his opening remarks, Secretary Shinseki made a statement that resonated with me throughout the night: “I learned a long time ago I couldn’t solve a problem I can’t see.”
The organization where I currently work collates the data collected during annual PIT counts. These counts are mandated nationally by HUD and coordinated locally by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness and the District of Columbia Continuum of Care. As communities submit data to HUD, we ensure accuracy and resolve technical problems. These data are then used in HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, detailing the state of homelessness in America.
Although I recognize their importance for policy research, I often wonder how much these data really matter. Conflicted, I contemplate whether resources used to quantify the issue might be better spent providing services to solve it. Despite the value of effectively measuring the problem’s scope, I worry that the corresponding faces are lost in the numbers. And I’m not convinced that we can do our work as proficiently if we become desensitized to the data’s meaning.
At check-in, my team was assigned a section of Dupont Circle to look for unsheltered residents. Although other teams found homeless people in other sections of the neighborhood, my team’s night ended with a count of zero. Zero is not insignificant data. It allows programs to target scarce resources and a baseline for measuring progress. However, what was significant about our zero to me was that I believe it could have been one.
On our search, we passed a Starbucks. Looking through the window, I saw a man with a scruffy beard, tattered clothes, and a bag seeming to carry all of his belongings. I wanted to talk to him. With the chance that he may be leaving Starbucks to a cold night outdoors, I wanted to make sure he was counted. I wanted him to count. This realization crystallized the notion that as vital as policy research is it’s not what this work is about. It’s about people.
In data analysis, missing the man in Starbucks is insignificant. However, when that single data point becomes a face that is mostly unseen or forgotten, it becomes more than significant. It becomes powerful, an opportunity for recognition, respect, and care—if just for one night.
Determining a sensitive way to approach the man inside the coffee shop, I convinced my team to return, but found the café closed and the man gone. My heart felt heavy. I hoped another team would find him.
Earlier, Secretary Donovan had urged us to use this experience to not only be grateful for what we have, but also to recommit ourselves to the work required to end homelessness once and for all. At night’s end, I understood. Commitment to change requires collaborations between professional goals and personal life, groundwork and office work. We need both sides. You have to see the problem to solve it, merge faces to numbers, and know the true power of one. This work is for the man in Starbucks and the many others waiting to be counted.
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