The Hope Project 2019

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Through an old friend of my son, Tim Nugent, I found out that there is something called Hope 2019, an attempt organized by the Department of Homeless Affairs to get a count of the homeless in winter, who do not live in shelters, but make their own arrangements on the street, or in subways, or basements or deserted buildings or wherever they can find some shelter against the bitter cold. Soon after Tim told me about this program, I got some literature on the subject at Community Board 8 and decided to volunteer, for the count is done almost completely through volunteers. I filled out a form on line and asked to be trained at Emma Jonhston School, P.S.241 on President Street between Franklin and Classon Avenues.

The first I heard from the DHA was an e-mail telling me to download a new App. As I am the owner of a flip-phone, I wrote back to tell the Coordinator, Courtney Nelson that I would not be able to use the App. She replied and reassured me I could still be of use. So at 10pm, I arrived at Emma Johnston; we seemed to be meeting in the school cafeteria. I signed in at the entrance to the room and was told I would be in Team 6. I went to the table marked six and signed in there as well, and soon other members of the team showed up. I first met Elaine, a friendly woman originally from Barbados. She has been a social worker for 21 years. A veteran from the previous year, she told me a lot about what to expect. Soon after, Brian came as well as a group of three who knew each other – Silvia, Annie, and Damon. It later emerged that Silvia and Annie came from City Planning and Damon knew them from a social group that would meet periodically to explore different parts of the city. A coordinator came around and asked us to choose a leader. We all thought Elaine should take this role as someone who had done it before. However, it turned out that two other people who came later had even more experience – Ron an older man who had come from Harlem, and another Elaine, whom I shall call Elaine 2. Ron had worked on the project for five years and Elaine 2 for four. So our group was complete and we spent some time chatting and getting to know each other. At 11pm the training began. Courtney told us, now perhaps over a hundred strong, what to do, how to use the materials provided and how to organize ourselves.

Team 6 was given three adjacent areas between Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue on either side of Kingston Avenue. We broke our team into three groups – two, three, and three – with each one given an area to deal with. One group was Damon, Annie and Sylvia, another was Brian and Ron, and the last was me and the two Elaines. We then drove over to the site in two cars provided by Elaine 2 and Ron. We parked on Herkimer Street. There we decided to meet at the Popeyes at the corner of Kingston and Fulton when we were finished.

We all set out to cover our areas. My group went east to the Interfaith Medical Center between Troy and Albany Avenues and then came back to the starting point. We soon met a woman who was homeless and pretty open about it. She was headed to a shelter on Herkimer Street. Elaine 2 did a brief interview. Near Interfaith we came on a young man who seemed to me to have his belongings next to him on a wall. However, the belongings turned out to be his skates that he had perhaps just finished using. In one of the dead end courts off Atlantic between Albany and St Andrews Place, I asked a man who was smoking at the top of some steps if he had a place to sleep. He was incredulous but finally answered that he did. Next we met a man just leaving St. Andrews Place with a limp and a cane. His walk was very laborious. It turned out he was drunk but seemed to have a destination clearly in mind. He wished us a good evening, and Elaine told him to be careful not to fall down. Coming back on Herkimer Street a young man told us he did have housing but complained he could not get a job interview with the Sanitation Department; perhaps this was because, as he told us, he had been in and out of prison. I gave him my card and told him I would hire him to do pick up litter on Nostrand Avenue. I hope I hear from him. At the Kingston Avenue subway stop a woman walked by us who seemed a bit strange. Elaine 2 followed her and tried to talk to her, but she quickly turned around and rushed back and disappeared down the subway steps. And so our night wanderings came to an end, and the whole team gathered at Popeyes. The other two groups had had similar experiences, a few encounters but none with people intending to spend the night on the street, not surprising given the chilly weather.

After we finished there was one last encounter. Ron and Brian talked to man with a cane who asked for money. It turned out he too was headed to a shelter. After that we piled into our two cars and went back to Emma Johnston, reported our results, took photos of the team, agreed we had done a great job, and headed out into the night. It was an impressive group, and I appreciated the two Elaines taking me under their wings, an old man, a newcomer, and someone with a useless antique phone.

– John DeWind

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