People live behind the numbers

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The PIT count (this) or the point-in-time count gives information about homelessness on one specific night.

It’s due to efforts like this that you can confidently say something like: “On the night of January 26 [2016], Connecticut counted 3,911 people experiencing homelessness, 831 of them children.” This kind of information is integral to the fight against homelessness, because it’s the answer to the question who is out there?

For instance, with data like this you can infer that out of the 831 children they found, 8 of them were without an adult. Completely ignoring the fact that both of those numbers should be zero, on this given night, there were eight children – essentially alone. That’s a sad thing to think about. The PIT count is an incredibly useful PDF  – the problem is that it’s pretty difficult to see what’s on the other side of the computer monitor. Those eight children are eight individual people – who are just a single shared number on a page.

So — about 5 years ago I was sitting at my computer browsing the web when I came across a fascinating video. This guy, along with a camera man, snuck inside an NYC subway and walked along the tracks. They did this because there is an abandoned subway station, built in the early part of the 1900s, that at the time of filming was completely boarded up and only accessible from the tracks.

The video, known as “UNDERCITY,” showcases a part of New York City that you don’t often see. This subway station, known as City Hall Subway Station (creative name, huh?) is not the only location featured in this video. Later on, they explore the Amtrak tunnel, which is a network of underground train tracks operated by, well, Amtrak. It also happens to be where a large number of homeless people live. There are fascinating interviews that offer a wonderfully unique perspective on homelessness in a documentary about urban exploring. One person, who was not named, has lived in the tracks for 28 years. She said she found out about the tracks by following street cats in the middle of the night.

It’s stories like this that put homelessness in perspective, in a way that the PIT count cannot. And although the PIT count is incredibly useful and vitally important to the fight against homelessness, the problem is that homelessness is often compressed to just data. People don’t often think about the people living on the streets, and when they do seek info, it is usually statistical data. And although they may take that info and do amazing things with it, it still doesn’t help the woman sleeping on a park bench tonight.

What will help the woman sleeping on a park bench are wonderful places such as the Columbus House, which is a homeless shelter serving New Haven. This past week I, along with my college communication class, visited the Columbus House. It was powerful to see where the difference was made. For a lot of the people who live there, the only other option is outside, (or in creative places, such as the unnamed woman in the tunnel.)

The first step to ending homelessness is by simply helping. And places like this, and many others like it do just that. Data is incredibly useful in the fight against homelessness, however a bed is even more so. As amazing as they are, places like this do not run on magic. They desperately need funding from as many sources as possible in order to better help the less fortunate – if you want to help the homeless but do not know where to start, this is your first step.

By Andrew Wasserman

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