Published on 2/4/2007
They started in the frigid hour before dawn last Monday morning, scanning playgrounds, parks, boathouses and cemeteries for signs of life. By the end of the day, Warren/Washington Housing Coalition volunteers had counted at least 235 homeless individuals in the two-county region, including six families and 11 children.
The one-day effort was the group's second official "point in time" census of the local homeless population, which will be used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to calculate grant eligibility.
Several social services agencies also agreed to keep track of how many homeless clients they served on Monday, but had not yet reported their numbers to the coalition as of late Friday. The final total will be available later this week, but the numbers have already exceeded results of the group's first census in January 2005, which counted 198 homeless individuals.
"The numbers have been, for me, just startling. And they're increasing every year," said Cliff Green, who co-chairs the Housing Coalition with Lisa Coutu. "I suspect they will be higher again this year."
The Housing Coalition was founded in 2004 as a cooperative effort between about 20 public and private social service agencies that share a desire to develop more affordable housing options for the neediest members of the community. The coalition has applied jointly for HUD funding with the Saratoga Homeless Alliance, under the name Saratoga--North Country Continuum of Care.
Staci Franco, executive director of the Adirondack Vets House and a member of the Housing Coalition, was among the coordinators of the census. She set out by car around 5 a.m., watching for anyone who may have spent the night outdoors. By sunrise, she guessed, many might have moved on to warmer spots like fast-food restaurants.
Her first encounter was with a middle-aged couple she recognized as "chronically homeless," she said. They had sheltered themselves amid some playground equipment and appeared to be living out of their car, which Franco said isn't unusual.
Next, she found a middle-aged man sleeping in a cemetery -- he told her that he "preferred to live outdoors," Franco said.
She also spotted three youths in a park area in Glens Falls, carrying heavy bags. Franco decided not to approach them because they looked "edgy," she said, but counted them anyway. "You don't find too many 17-year-olds hanging out outside at the crack of dawn just for fun, especially in this weather," she said.
Meanwhile, other Housing Coalition volunteers were walking around the docks and shuttered seasonal buildings of Lake George, and other possible locations for the homeless to seek shelter.
Franco spent her morning working at the Vets House, then went out to continue the census on foot around 11 a.m. She dressed very casually, hoping to appear as non-threatening as possible to anyone she might meet.
A bitter wind whipped through the streets, and few people were visible on the sidewalks. Franco approached three young men standing outside a store near the intersection of Broad and South streets. They were willing to talk, but said they didn't know anyone who was homeless. Then Franco asked if they knew anyone who did what she calls "couch hopping," spending a few months at a time at various friends' homes without maintaining a permanent residence.
"Yeah, that's like all my friends," one of them said, the others nodding in agreement.
Later, Franco said she thinks couch hopping is a growing trend that masks the true extent of homelessness in the region. "I've come to realize that there are a lot of people who are working and can't afford a place of their own, they are just shacking up with different relatives and friends to make ends meet. But unfortunately, we can't count them," she said, explaining that they would not be considered homeless by HUD's definition.
Seeing no one else on the street, Franco changed tactics and began approaching bartenders, waitresses, hospital receptionists and others who interact daily with a wide swath of the public.
"I'm doing a survey for the federal government..." Franco typically began her spiel. Listeners often appeared suspicious at first, then softened as she explained her cause.
At a few places, the response was quick. The waitress at the Off-Track Betting cafe on South Street said she had about five homeless customers on any given day, and the director of The Open Door promised to do his own mini-census among the soup kitchen's clients. The intake staff at Glens Falls Hospital agreed to keep track of how many homeless patients came in that day.
But other respondents looked puzzled by the question, said they hadn't seen any homeless customers and that "it's not really a problem around here."
That's a common misconception, Coutu and Green said. People tend to think homelessness is limited to urban areas, but the problem goes beyond than the stereotype of a ragged figure sleeping on a New York City park bench.
The federal definition of homelessness does include unsheltered individuals, who are defined as "sleeping in places not meant for human habitation," but it also includes people sleeping in emergency or transitional housing, such as a shelter or a cheap motel. Anyone who is about to be evicted from their residence and has no place to go also qualifies. Of the 261 individuals identified during last year's point-in-time count, 75 percent were in those latter categories.
"We do have homeless people in our region -- they're just invisible," Coutu said.
According to a report released last month by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are approximately 744,000 homeless people in the United States. New York had the second-highest homeless population of all states, about 61,000 people.