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Counting The Homeless In The Cold

Todd Bookman

On any given evening in Manchester, roughly 50 people sleep in hidden camps, under bridges, in cars and inside abandoned buildings. Despite the extreme cold, last night was no exception.

It was also the night a group of volunteers fanned out to count homeless people as part of an annual census. 

They gathered at Families in Transition, a homeless services agency.There’s coffee, donuts, and also detailed maps of Manchester, with yellow Post-its marking places where homeless people often sleep.

After orientation, they break up into groups, and head out. It's about 2:15 a.m.

Cathy Kuhn is Director of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness.

Kuhn: "Right now, we are walking down one of the streets of Manchester, sort of in the center city. We are looking in alley ways for any evidence of people living in these areas, or if anyone is around. We are also looking in cars to see if we can see anyone who might be sleeping in a car tonight."

She’s in charge of the annual point-in-time count in Manchester. There are also volunteers in Nashua.

Kuhn: "It is quite frigid tonight. With windchill, going to feel like -12 degrees. I think all of us here have on many, many layers. Trying to keep warm as best we can. The walking helps."

Homeless counts take place around the country each January. The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, mandates a census. The numbers are used to determine funding for local programs.

The final data from tonight’s count won’t be released for a few months, but Kuhn says she expects between 200 and 300 spent the night without a roof in New Hampshire. Another hundred or so found a warm bed inside New Horizon’s, Manchester’s homeless shelter.

Credit Todd Bookman / NHPR
Mark Stokes studies a map of Manchester before heading out to count the homeless.

After a cold night, the census takers head home at daybreak for some sleep.

Many of the homeless, with nowhere else to go, head directly to the Homeless Services Center, a day facility tucked into an alley.

Chris Emerson is the Director.

Emerson: "The job of rehabilitating a broken person, broken by the society, broken by the system, broken by themselves, is very difficult. This is the place where we help people to start to rebuild their lives. There is no place lower on the social safety net than this center."

Here, people can rest, do laundry, have a warm meal.

It’s also an access point for services: AA meetings, resume help, mental health counseling.

Rob, who asked that we not use his last name, comes to use the internet.

Rob: "Oh, well I Facebook. I just don’t update my status to ‘homeless’ or anything. I talk about my dislike of current politicians, or perhaps a Patriots game."

Tall, bearded, with some college education, Rob has been homeless for 7 months.

He makes money doing odd jobs when he can, but he says landing steady work is a challenge since he has to haul around everything he owns.

Rob: "You truly do carry everything you own, or you don’t change your clothes. This is not a rationale series of options. I mean, McDonalds is not going to hire you if you walk in with trash bags full of clothes. It is clearly absurd."

Rob says he uses alcohol as a way to cope with difficulties, though he says it wasn’t the driving factor that put him on the streets.

Rob: "Now truly, what else…Thumb twiddling? No. It is intolerable enough as it is. The least I could do is have a drink with it."

The point-in-time count doesn’t ask questions about why people are sleeping outside. If it is drugs or alcohol or mental health.

In fact, volunteers are warned not to approach at night.

For Chris Emerson, the day shelter director, the reason for why someone is homeless is secondary.

Emerson: "I’m here because I care about these people. And I realize that any one of us, it’s a cliché, could be homeless. And I want to make sure that when they see me, they see the face of a caring society. But that doesn’t mean I will coddle them, nor will I enable them. Nor will I make this so easy that they could stay homeless forever. Because, that sign on the door out there is real: The center is a pretty good place to be, but it is a much better place to be from."
Emerson: "I want them to be gone to their next best stage of life."

A stage in life where they don’t spend their days in a shelter, and their nights being counted in a survey.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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