Hitting the streets in the name of HOPE

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It was just after midnight on one of the coldest nights of the year when Common Ground staff and volunteers kicked off the 2014 HOPE Count, but that was nothing new. What was new was the night’s “Code Blue III” Winter Weather Emergency rating. Conditions were so extreme that it was highly possible for a homeless person to freeze to death. This was an outcome that our volunteers had to be aware of and be prepared to prevent. If a homeless individual did not appear to be dressed warmly enough or covered sufficiently with blankets and bedding, we instructed our volunteers to call 911. And several of them did.

That was part of what made the HOPE Count an eye-opening experience that moved homelessness from a theoretical social problem to a very real one.

Each January, we partner with the New York City Department of Homeless Services in their annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), a unique overnight event during which volunteers fan out across the city and conduct a census of New Yorkers sleeping outside. The information gathered that night is invaluable, as it helps us adjust our efforts to make the greatest possible impact on helping the chronically homeless to realize better lives.

For Common Ground, it’s not only a once-a-year harvesting of critical data, but also an important opportunity for staff and volunteers to experience street outreach up close like never before. It educates participants about the different sub-populations that outreach workers regularly deal with, and the judgment required to evaluate each unique situation.

Common Ground board members Robert Sideli and Jide Zeitlin participated in this year’s count, with Dr. Sideli calling it “an incredible experience.” He and his wife Donna canvassed 57th to 59th Streets and a nearby subway station, with Senior Program Director Doug Becht, as well as the 57th Street F Line subway station. Their most memorable encounter was with a young man, dressed in a light jacket and shivering. He showed signs of paranoia when they tried to engage him in conversation. With assistance from the police, the team made sure that the young man was brought inside for emergency psychiatric help. “We probably saved that person’s life,” said Becht.

According to Assistant Director of Programs Laura Borntraeger, for Common Ground staff who do not work in street outreach, participating in the unique overnight count is incredibly motivating. “Your work here is much more fulfilling after seeing firsthand the great need for what we do.”

In total, 63 staff members and 37 volunteers sacrificed sleep to take part in this critical endeavor. The event was underwritten by Bank of America, with food contributions from Neuman’s Kitchen and Starbucks. NYC Councilmember Corey Johnson was present to voice his support of Common Ground and thank the volunteers.

Results of the census will be available later this spring.