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A night on a hunt for the homeless

The moral dilemma of a well-intentioned search

By Ezra Haber Glenn

We huddled in the parking lot of the Senior Center; warm coats, hats, gloves; hands wrapping Styrofoam coffee cups. It was nearly midnight, and we were filled with nervous energy, probably borrowed from the movies: Strike Force Delta assembling for a pre-dawn covert op. A team leader verified our presence. We grabbed pretzels and granola bars for fuel.

Then we paired up in cars and headed out in search of the homeless.

One designated night each year in cities across the country, volunteer groups like ours conduct an annual Homeless Census, under the guidance of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Our counts of people help government agencies and nonprofit funders decide where to allocate funds for shelters, food pantries, and other aid. The date is always in winter, the time late night or early morning, when people with homes are most expected to be in them.

In larger cities, volunteers follow well-mapped routes, established protocols, and rules of engagement. The real pros sometimes deploy “decoy” homeless actors to test the count’s coverage and accuracy. But our group in Lawrence, Mass., a hardscrabble, low-income former mill town, would mostly wing it. We received minimal training and little guidance, which contributed to the sense of adventure. And we knew that any numbers we could generate would beat none at all. In essence, we had embarked on an odd, emotionally twisted, inverted scavenger hunt, actually hoping to find people living in bad conditions, knowing that if we were “lucky,” we might qualify the city for additional funding.

Why should the homeless be expected to be findable — on display — in order for us to count them, and in order for them to count?

In the first hour, we didn’t find anyone we could honestly list as “unsheltered” for the night. We saw kids in the McDonald’s parking lot; people headed home from the clubs; a guy walking a dog. Before long — much quicker than you might expect — the giddiness of the adventure wore off and the boredom of fruitless searching set in. Driving down streets in the middle of the night was not much different from driving down streets anytime, except there was less to look at. But boredom can lead to reflection and insight.

We discussed the possibility — and ethics — of just inventing some numbers and heading home: wouldn’t it be better to lie than to find no one? Wouldn’t it be better to lie than to find someone? And why should the homeless be expected to be findable — on display — in order for us to count them, and in order for them to count?

We also thought, more consciously than usual, about what it meant to have — or lack — a home, something you might have assumed we’d already thought a lot about, since our team was composed of urban planners who worked every day to develop affordable housing. I wondered what it would be like to be right there: that corner, that stoop, that bench. I became aware of the very many rungs I would need to fall down the social ladder to find myself on the street for even one night.

Mentally wandering a bit, I next considered where I might be — if homeless, but not here outside, in plain view. I knew of an old industrial yard across the river, along a former rail-line, not much used in these post-freight days. We drove down the dirt frontage road parallel to the tracks and came over a rise to a large lot behind a fence. As the scene opened up in the headlights, we strained to look, hoping to discover people sleeping in their cars — which is exactly what we found. Only these were the black and white patrol cars of Lawrence’s finest, and inside were three on-duty police officers. We’d found their hidden napping spot: uh-oh. I seemed to recall something about letting sleeping cops lie.

One officer turned his light on our car, freezing us while he stepped out and approached. Confidently ignoring the way he’d been caught in flagrante dormien, he asked what we were doing there in the middle of the night. We explained our quest and he sleepily struggled to make sense of it.

“So you’re looking for people living outside?” he asked, as if unable to remember the word homeless. “Follow me.” And so we did, our car creeping behind his through a warren of abandoned access roads. We came to a spot where the railroad ran under a bridge. He pointed out his window to a spot up in the iron trusses, then drove off, leaving us alone to puzzle it out.

We left the car doors open and the motor running as we approached the area he’d indicated. We saw a small cardboard shelter wedged up under the bridge, six feet off the ground. We heard someone stirring inside: one more person we’d woken up in our search. (Why did this need to be done so late?)

In a brief conversation through the cardboard — we never found a door — we confirmed that someone was living there, and actually counted two people, based on his statement to that effect. Technically we were supposed to “visually verify” everyone we counted. But given the cold, the lateness of the hour, and our general respect for privacy, we figured it was close enough for Lawrence.

We somehow found our way back to the Senior Center, happy to have something to report on our tally sheet. Only when talking about it much later did it occur to us that we should have offered some help — some money, or at least some of our snacks.

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Ezra Haber Glenn is an urban planner and lecturer at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches on community development, data in public policy, and cities in film.


Illustration by Chris Malbon


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