Thursday, April 1, 2010

Census Report: Counting The Homeless

"Targeted Non-Sheltered Outdoor Locations.” Since the day I started training with the U.S. Census Bureau, this has been held as the holy grail of the operation that targets folks in transitory locations. Specifically, TNSOL involves canvassing subway stations, parks and particular streets and blocks previously identified as locales where homeless people are known to spend the night.

Originally, TNSOL was scheduled Tuesday night nationwide, but in New York, it’d been slamming rain for two days running, so it was wisely rescheduled for Wednesday, from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. At 10 p.m., three teams met at the Census office in Brooklyn, including one commandeered by Z and me, along with three of our enumerators. Z has become my new work wife in short order, since we connected March 25 knocking on doors at an old-folks home, where we sniffed an immediate connection. She’s my kind of lady: tough, outspoken, 50-something, never at a loss for words and appreciably rowdy, but ultimately compassionate, cool and protective of what and whom she cares about. Since, supervisor O has continuously linked us, recognizing that one plus one equals guaranteed results.

Equipped with fluorescent security vests that ID’d us as Census workers, flashlights, and badges and traveling in packs, there was no element of danger. Z and I were given nine TNSOL stops, including three parks, five subway stations and one long square block where homeless had been reported in the previous operation. Don’t know if this is the politically correct way to view the effort (as if that’s ever been a Smoking Nun concern), but TNSOL was ultimately nothing much to speak of. Parks: not a single cited sleeping body. The square block: 8-foot fences and 24-hour security, so no one. Subway stations: one sleeping in one, one slumbering in another and, how do I term it—the most successful?—six at a third.

Enumerator G, the lady who possessed so much inherent wisdom at our Monday shelter count, reasoned that the best way to determine homeless versus those simply passed-out was a glance at their shoes. New, clean sneaks? Probably not homeless. We observed one individual with shiny white sneakers and a backpack that looked upscale enough to resist counting him. I suppose my moment of glory came in a subway station where two gentlemen were sitting on benches, chatting amiably. We’d been advised not to disturb anyone sleeping, but here are these guys awake, aware, in no way intimidating, so I asked, “You guys hanging out here for the night?” One responded, “As long as no one tells us we gotta go.”

I was pleased to be able to record these guys as “homeless,” ID them as black males, which is all we needed. Unlike the previous operation, where we were encouraged to list full names, the Census allows “Person One,” “Person Two” and so on for TNSOL. Score!

Then, halfway through, supervisor O called with news that he was bringing the feds back to observe—the two guys that hung out with us Tuesday at our soup kitchen. They accompanied us to two of the parks and a couple subway stations. The crew collectively rolled its eyes when they took festive pictures of one another in their Census vests. Our business was their pleasure. Enjoy your expense accounts, boys, while we work for a living.

The team finished our last destination close to 2 a.m., and Z and I let our staffers go home,
as we headed back to the office to wrap up paperwork. The adventure clearly peaked as we hurried to complete five forms per locale, whether or not we found any homeless. At one point, my brain was so fried that as I filled out the name of enumerator R, I blanked on his last name. I actually had to refer to a previous entry for recall.

Finally, we left the office at 3:30 a.m., and of course, when I got home, as exhausted as I was, I was too wired to sleep. I poured a bountiful bowl of Honeycomb cereal, watched “Rhoda,” and went to bed at 4... only to wake at 9:30 a.m. And return to the Census office at 1:30 to pick up seven boxes of paperwork for the next phase, which begins tomorrow at 9 a.m., when I invite my 11 enumerators to my apartment to pass out assignments for the coming week. Let the next adventure begin. If I can only keep my eyes open.