My running shoes have taken me a lot of places. Races around the country, vacations in interesting spots around the world, and of course they're well-used here in my hometown as I go about the tasks of everyday life. And this weekend, they took me to one of the most important places I've ever been.
During the last ten days of January, cities around the U.S. conduct what are called "point-in-time counts," to provide documented estimates of the numbers of homeless individuals living in that region, required for any city that receives federal funding for homeless services. In San Diego, our count is done annually, and also includes in-depth confidential interviews with homeless, unsheltered individuals, to better understand the issues. This effort requires collaboration among several local agencies, and the work of hundreds of volunteers.
I signed up to help out this year, because homelessness is a problem I care a lot about, and something that usually makes me feel pretty helpless. I spend part of nearly every day of my life running or walking in Balboa Park - a place where the issues of homelessness can't possibly be ignored. As I run among the manicured gardens, well-maintained trails, and cultural institutions, I also run among scores of people who slept there the night before. The joy of running in my favorite place is always mixed with twinges of sadness and frustration. But I'm an action-oriented kind of gal, and when things upset me, I'm compelled to find a way to contribute to the solution. And conducting street surveys seemed like something that I, a social worker who loves pounding the pavement in my running shoes, was pretty well suited to do.
I went to a training earlier in the month, to learn about the questionnaire we'd be using, and the goals of the surveys. And then on Saturday morning, I laced up and headed out to the meeting spot where we were "dispatched" in teams to go find homeless individuals who were willing to participate in the survey, and document what we could. Who are the homeless? Where are they staying, and how are they getting by? What factors led to their homelessness? What health, financial, or other challenges are they currently facing? I was thrilled when I was randomly assigned to go survey in Balboa Park.
It was interesting talking with my "walking partner," to find out his motivation for volunteering. He described moving into a new apartment when he first arrived in San Diego, and being furious with the homeless people who were out raiding his trash and recycling bins in the pre-dawn morning. But instead of getting mad about it, he decided to channel that energy into doing something about it. My people! We got to the park and had no problem quickly finding some people who were willing to talk with us. We had hygiene kits and $10 Subway gift cards to give to those who participated, but I found that everyone we approached seemed equally glad for the opportunity to tell their story, to contribute to the body of knowledge about homelessness.
I met some fascinating people that morning, bright and resourceful individuals with great insight into their problems, and the problems of those they see around them. Some were homeless due to catastrophic health events, some due to mental illness and chronic unemployment, and one was homeless by choice. I sat in the grass and talked with them, conscious of my feet warm and comfortable in my expensive running shoes, my stomach full of the toast and peanut butter I'd made in my kitchen that morning. We didn't just run through the surveys, but had conversation, connecting on subjects like the companionship of dogs, or a shared love of a hot cup of coffee. They have ideas about how these problems can be solved, and I hope we'll listen. All those faces that I run past in the park will never look the same.
I thank the San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless for this opportunity to contribute, and look forward to participating in future counts and surveys. For more information about homeless Point-in-Time Counts around the country, visit the HUD Homelessness Data Exchange website.