Friday, January 30, 2009

The task of counting the District’s homeless population falls upon a small, dedicated group of volunteers that this year braved icy streets and the cold to complete the job.

“The job is the gift; it’s a reward in and of itself,” said Aaron McKeiver, 36, one of 60 volunteers who took part in the count Wednesday night as part of a team canvassing downtown. The tally, conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, is part of a federally mandated census of the nation’s homeless.

Results from the count won’t be available until June, officials say. But advocates say homelessness is already rising and is expected to continue growing because of the economy and the worsening job market.

“We’re very fearful that overall homelessness will increase around the country, especially in big cities like D.C. Unemployment is the biggest factor, and that’s simply spiked nationwide,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Searching the area surrounding the New York Avenue Metro station in Northeast, Mr. McKeiver and his team of three other volunteers recorded as much information as possible on those they encountered, including names, birth dates and living situation. They were also careful to quickly respond to any pleas for help, even if just to escape the cold.

“In my experience, those who are out here on a cold night are obviously the most vulnerable and in need of help, that’s why this count is so important,” said Mr. McKeiver, a marketing and social outreach coordinator for the NoMa Business Improvement District, located north of Capitol Hill.

Emily Downy, 27 who is also an AmeriCorps volunteer, said, “I love doing this work; it’s an amazing experience.

“So few of us will actually take the time to sit down and talk to those that are homeless. It’s very uplifting.”

Volunteer Calvin Lassiter said he felt the same way.

“There’s that old saying: You touch one person, you touch the world,” he said.

The team counted two homeless people living underneath the New York Avenue bridge, which goes over the Metro Red Line near Florida Avenue Northeast. Some homeless have made their own community under the bridge, with makeshift shelters made of bedsheets, wooden pallets and tarps.

Some of those counted by Mr. McKeiver’s group did not respond to questions, but the group noted the person’s location as well as condition.

The council of governments will also count all homeless living in emergency shelters or temporary housing facilities across the city. The results will be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will release a report in June.

Area shelters are already seeing substantial increases in demand for their services. A survey by the District-based Community Partnership for the Homeless showed that in December, the number of families needing short-term help from one of about 26 shelters in the city increased more than 42 percent from December 2007, from 125 to 177.

Last year, the number of homeless counted in the District increased by 3 percent compared with in 2007, and there is no expectation the numbers will go down this time around.

“With the recession I wouldn’t expect the numbers to go down, I’d say if we don’t see an increase, then that’s a good thing,” said Michael Ferrel, executive director of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless.

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