The Point In Time Count is conducted every January.
For 72 hours, cities across the country survey their homeless populations, collecting and consolidating demographic information. This data is reported to Congress, and determines the amount of government funding that communities receive for homeless services.
A collaborative of agencies organizes this enormous effort in Fresno each year. Over three days, an army of helpers carrying clipboards, and wearing heavy coats under bright orange safety vests went to Fresno’s toughest places.
Disappearing into bitterly cold fog, Point in Time Count volunteers walked through alleys and looked into trash dumpsters. They crawled under park benches and hiked the banks of irrigation canals. Searching out Fresno’s homeless to talk with and survey, they traced their way through parts of our city where even angels fear to tread.
I volunteered for the 2015 Point In Time Count with an organization that serves homeless veterans. At sunrise, we began working an area bordered by Blackstone, Shaw, Shields, and Millbrook Avenues.
One of the agency’s staff members told me he had been homeless. A post-Vietnam veteran, Raymond fought personal struggles on Fresno’s streets for three years before finding redemption and turning his life around.
“I know how hard it is for them,” he told me, driving an outreach van along Blackstone Avenue, as our group looked for people to talk with. “But I know they can change someday. Like I did.”
When we found homeless people pushing their shopping carts, gathering up piles of blankets or standing on street corners, Raymond stopped the van.
Our team introduced ourselves, and we offered a small bag of toiletries, plus socks or a knit hat as an incentive to answer pages of standardized Point in Time Count survey.
After spending a day with Raymond, now the outreach coordinator for his organization, talking with Fresno’s homeless, I was surprised at how much they are like me. And you would be surprised how much they are like you.
Sleeping on our sidewalks, camping under tarps hung on fences along Highway 99 and burrowed into dumpsters are people like all of us. They are in terrible situations, sometimes of their own making. Some have lived that way for years, even decades. They are homeless because of issues that affect many of us: drug addiction, mental illness and alcoholism. But even those in the most difficult circumstances and the harshest conditions, like Raymond was, have the potential to turn their lives around.
Each homeless woman I spoke with hesitated when I asked the survey’s final demographic question. There was an uncomfortable pause as I rustled the forms on my clipboard, stood in the bitter cold and waited for her response. An awkward silence while she fumbled with the socks and little plastic bag of hotel shampoo she got for talking with me, and decided if, and how, to respond.
“Have you ever been a victim of domestic violence?” Nodding, every woman quietly answered the same.
Raymond drove all of us down Dakota Avenue, looking for a homeless man he knew. We found “Matthew” standing next to a stack of neatly folded blankets behind a restaurant, and he agreed to participate in the survey.
When asked his birthday, Matthew said that he would be 60 in a few days. “60!” he said, pulling the new hat we gave him for talking with us on top of the two he was already wearing. “60? Damn. Yeah, I’ll be 60.”
He had been homeless for nearly 15 years.
Matthew was fun to talk with, and had a big, easy laugh. He was sharp and charming. If he had been wearing a suit and tie instead of layers of grimy sweatshirts and three stocking caps, he could be president of your Rotary Club. He could be salesman of the month in the office next to yours. He could be your neighbor.
He could be you.
We wished him a happy birthday, and Matthew high-fived us as we left.
“He reminds me of myself when I was still homeless,” Raymond said as he pulled out of the alley, driving back onto Blackstone Avenue. “He’s not ready for something better. But someday he will be, so I keep coming out here to see him.”
I was inspired by Raymond’s unwavering belief in redemption for everyone we talked with, even Matthew, who had been on the streets for a quarter of his life.
The preliminary data collected by a hundred people volunteering for three miserably cold January days is heartbreaking. Fresno will report to Congress that more than 800 unsheltered homeless live on our streets.
Helping with the Point In Time Count, I talked with them: pregnant women, teenagers, veterans, families, the mentally ill. Our city’s homeless are people like you and me. They have the promise of a better life. After decades on the streets, they can still claim what they have lost, including Matthew. And like Raymond did, they can find redemption. Someday.
Even those living where angels, and the rest of us, fear to tread.