PIT Count - 2019

Take 2 on this blog post. I want to write about my participation in the Point in Time (PIT) homeless count in Wilmington in which I participated last Wednesday. I spent some time writing on it and the first draft ended up more like field notes – painful and unwieldy in its level of detail. So I’m trying again. If I’m going to do this blog regularly I am going to have to get more efficient with my blog entries.

I got my picture in the News-Journal! The hands filling out the survey on the blue jeans at the start of the video that accompanies the story are mine, and I am in at least one more picture that made it into the paper edition as well. Christina Jedra, the reporter covering the count (who has written some excellent stories on homelessness and anti-panhandling enforcement in Wilmington) was embedded in our team. Link to the story is here.

 One benefit of such a story is that I can refer you, dear reader, to this article for the explanation of the count and just add on some of my impressions here.

1.       The only other place where I had volunteered for PIT counts was in Philadelphia; the Wilmington count was a much lower key event. Philadelphia counts about 5700 homeless in their PIT, the entire state of Delaware will only count around 1,000. The Wilmington-based volunteers numbered around 30, and only one of them was a direct services provider. Matt Meyer, the New Castle County Executive, came out and counted.  We chatted a bit. He wrote his masters thesis on homelessness and public education.

2.       It was the coldest night of the year. Our team counted and surveyed maybe six people, only one was actually at an outdoor location. Wilmington had a Code Purple, which opens up overnight accommodations to people otherwise sleeping outdoors on cold nights. The cold made canvassing the city more unpleasant and almost certainly drove people that we might have counted indoors, but, I pointed out, was ultimately beneficial to the PIT Count as many of these people would then be counted in sheltered locations. It is much easier to count people in shelters than it is outdoors. Someone else pointed out that people would likely be missed if they stayed the night in other locations (with friends, etc.). I still think that the net result is a somewhat more complete count. However, the unsheltered numbers would go down, so it looks like that segment of the homeless were going down when in fact the reduction was an artifact of the weather.  

3.       The few people we did count and survey were in indoor locations – train stations and hospital emergency departments. We checked out the ED’s as our final stops. Wilmington Hospital and St. Francis. Both were very different from each other, both were quiet. The nursing staff was apparently bored and willing to talk. Both recounted stories of regular, apparently homeless people who frequented the ED and whom they knew well. They came both for maladies and for staying out of the elements, and those we talked to took a seemingly ambivalent approach to them. One of the people we surveyed had been found earlier by another PIT count team, just outside the Salvation Army shelter, laying on the ground. He had a physical disability and seemed immobilized in the cold. They called 911 and was whisked away. We could now complete the story. He seemed okay when we saw him, and I think the hospital kept him for “observation” overnight more as a move of mercy than a medically necessary one.

 4.       The city looks different through the lens of a PIT count. I have said this every time I’ve gone to count. Usually its been Philadelphia, this time Wilmington. I’m still getting to know Wilmington, both in its geography and in its rhythms, so this was even more so that night. Wilmington is a city, with a very distinct downtown and other marks of a city, but at a population of 78000 or so, a decidedly small one. There was virtually no one out this evening, and the weather ensured this was even more so than on a normal night. I saw the city through different eyes, looking at it as someone might who has no place to sleep, trying to identify spaces they might use to stay somewhat concealed and, on a night like tonight, with at least a modicum of protection from the elements. The city then became a more foreboding, forbidding place that had to be reconfigured from hard concrete and sharp angles to something more conducive to a night’s sleep.

 5.       One of the attractive things about doing the PIT count in Wilmington was the promise that we’d be done by 1. By the time we got done with the EDs, however, it was past 2 and by the time I got out of the staging area, at St. Patrick’s Center, it was closer to 2:30. I still had a drive back to Philadelphia. A consolation was that I could cruise unimpeded on a virtually carless I-95, and my car’s heat did not disappoint. I listened to outtakes from Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks – “More Blood More Tracks”. Songs from one of my favorite all time albums done very differently. It paired perfectly with that night.

 I made arrangements the next day to sleep in, but Lorelei was unimpressed and still wanted crepes for breakfast before heading out to Kindergarten. I did get back to bed some and got in to the office late, but my brain was mush for the rest of the day.

Stephen Metraux