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Commentary: Homeless Count

By Jennifer Nagorka, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

One night each year, dozens of volunteers fan out across Dallas carrying clipboards and survey forms to count the homeless. They visit shelters, pick their way through the dark to shantytowns under bridges, and seek out doorways where people sleep. The count is required for cities that want to compete for some federal grants.

Five years ago, I went with a team that searched the vacant lots and riverbottoms just south of downtown. The people we met looked homeless: bedraggled men in grimy clothes. But they had been surprisingly friendly and courteous.

For this year's count, I was part of a group sent to the Salvation Army's social service center. I talked to a man who was homeless but had a steady job, ex-offenders trying to overcome drug problems, and women who simply had no place else to go.

Those women stayed at the emergency shelter. It's a short-term shelter for desperate families, with a Spartan lobby and lots of rules. Two other volunteers and I sat on one side of a folding table, vending machines buzzing behind us. Women drifted through the lobby. I couldn't distinguish between the employees and the women staying at the shelter. Everybody had had clean clothes and neatly kept hair, so nobody "looked" homeless.

Women sat down in chairs opposite us. We asked our questions: Have you ever had problems with the law, mental illness, drugs or family violence? What services do you need but can't find? Have you been tested for HIV? What was the result? Imagine a total stranger asking you that in a tiny lobby where everyone can hear your answer.

Their stories made my heart sink. Several had such obvious mental disabilities that they were walking targets for human predators. A round-faced woman on the far side of middle age, her voice whispery and flat, acknowledged a problem with depression. She was like a deflated balloon.

A younger woman, almond-eyed and attractive, simply couldn't follow the conversation. She tried to, but she couldn't. She said she had seven children in another state, and that her husband had tried to kill her. She wasn't sure if she was still married. "Where will I go tomorrow night?" she asked again and again.

These women couldn't fend for themselves. It would be like expecting an amputee to run a marathon without a prosthesis. Why on earth were we sitting here, I wondered, checking boxes on a survey, when we ought to be out raising money to build efficiency apartments where these women could live in safety and receive guidance from social workers? They could work some jobs, but they were vulnerable. They needed help for the rest of their lives, and what they had was a temporary bed at the Salvation Army.

Some "normal" women stay at the shelter, but their stories, too, were heart-rending. One was an elderly hurricane evacuee. Another, homeless off and on for years because of family problems, was all of 18 years old.

Last year's count found almost 6,000 homeless people in Dallas County. This year's total will probably be higher because of storm refugees. We know what most homeless people of them need: permanent housing. When will we stop counting and start building?

Jennifer Nagorka is a writer from Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.

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