Homeless and Housing Resource Network writer Rachael R. Kenney recently volunteered for Denver’s annual point-in-time homeless count. In this blog, she recounts her experience and the important lessons she learned when she asked, “Where did you sleep last night?”
Did I really want to do this again? Two years ago I volunteered for Denver’s homeless count. I was stationed in an administrative building and the staff were all in a training that day so my volunteer partner and I only handed out one survey for the entire four-hour shift. I longed for my experience at the Boston count a few years prior, where volunteers take to the street on foot and in vehicles. We didn’t see anyone then, either, but at least it was a change of scenery. But I’ve been meaning to get more involved locally and they say that the best time is the present, so I signed up. I was pleasantly surprised.
We set up at a folding table in the hallway of an administrative building. Instead of us playing the role of eager young salespeople, nearly everyone who passed approached us to ask what we were up to. My partners and I would explain the homeless count and, much to my surprise, the person would usually sit down to talk with us, including: the nervous man who I was certain would say that he had housing—he didn’t; the young woman whose daughter was bouncing in her stroller—I wondered if offering her fruit snacks was a good idea; and the smiling young man whose son wore sweatpants and sweet little sneakers.
There were two people who stood out and tugged at my heart. The first was an elderly woman who was hearing impaired and didn’t have hearing aids. I’m hearing impaired and the thought of going without aids is scary, even just “thank you, please come again” can spiral into a stressful experience. Rather than read her the survey like we were trained to do, we handed it to her to fill out on her own. She told us about her day as she carefully checked off the boxes. When she reached the end she couldn’t remember what city she was in the night before and began to cry. I wanted so badly to walk around the table and hug her, but I didn’t think that was appropriate and I just sat there.
The second person was a man in his mid-30s. His sly smile and lanky gait reminded me of a goofy friend on a sitcom. He told us that he was supposed to check into detox that morning but he wasn’t clean so he needed to wait. It amazes me that, even though I’ve worked so hard to break down my stereotypes, it still knocks me off guard when someone is high and communicates so well; these beliefs are such a deep part of our psyches. He made an inappropriate joke; we all laughed. He was trying to get clean to be with his family; we all cried inside. He seemed genuine about wanting to change. We rooted for him as he strolled out into the cold and hoped that we were right.
Almost everyone I spoke to that day fit somewhere on the spectrum of homelessness. I reflected on the fact that I was only two miles from home in an affluent town that doesn’t seem to know poverty, yet here I was, surrounded by it. These were people who I wouldn’t give a second thought to if they were in line behind me in the grocery store or strolling past as I walked the dog. The afternoon was a stark reminder of the importance of open mindedness, of providing a spectrum of services, and of how important it is to ask the question, “Where did you sleep last night?”
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