I Tried To Save A Homeless Woman From Freezing & The City Couldn't Help Us

Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, we waited to speak to the homeless on Joralemon Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Our first case seemed to appear out of Borough Hall’s shadows, hunched over a banged-up walker, wrapped in layers of black, a silver beanie peaking from under her hoodie, its brim flecked with glitter. “Hi,” said my teammate for the evening. “We’re volunteers with the Department Of Homeless Services. Would it be OK if we asked you a few questions? Do you have a place to stay tonight?”

She began to cry; a single tear perched on the ridge of her cheek, which seemed to expand in the cold. “I can’t get down there,” she said, pointing at the nearest subway entrance. She was 71. “I ride the trains at night, but the elevators won’t work. They’re all out of order. I tried over there and over there, but I can’t get in nowhere.”

In name, the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE, for your hashtag) isn’t a rescue operation; it’s a massive citywide survey, which tries to count the number of people living on the streets of New York. Each winter, over 3,000 volunteers canvass every nook and cranny of NYC, usually on the coldest night imaginable.

It’s partially an image campaign, to boost awareness of homelessness and give the city a better idea of where street denizens gather on the coldest nights of the year in order to better allocate resources. But the main reason for the count is that the federal government requires it. The City receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) based on the size of its number, a data-based stand-in for the severity of its problem.

The count’s methodology is thorough yet simple. At training centers across the five boroughs, volunteers are divided into teams of between three and six people. Each team is assigned a series of canvass zones—streets and subway stations where, during winter nights, the number of homeless tends to spike. Volunteers walk a single path through each zone, stopping every single person they encounter, rapidly filling out a questionnaire and, if asked for help, steer the homeless toward shelters and drop-in centers—safe spaces which provide meals, showers, and basic medical care, but no beds.

During our training an hour earlier, we were instructed that the City was in the midst of Code Blue, meaning anyone sleeping outside, anyone immobile with exposed extremities or crashing from intoxication, should receive an offer of immediate transportation to a safe, warm space.

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