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Islands of Desolation: HOPE Homeless Count 2019

Posted on January 31, 2019 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

 “I’m Still Thinking of Them Now & What They’re Doing Tonight”

Just before midnight on Tuesday, January 29th and stretching into the chilly early morning hours of January 30th, Catholic Charities Bronx Director Rev. Eric Cruz joined a squad of volunteers fanning out across New York City to count and minister to the homeless.  

He was one of 4,200 of men, women, families, friends and teens participating in the 2019 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), a citywide community volunteer effort to count and offer services to every New Yorker sleeping on the street during the coldest time of year. 

Clutching a map and accompanied by two police officers, Fr. Eric and fellow volunteers zigzagged though streets with names that changed as they turned each corner in the part industrial, part residential Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx.  Pushing through wind tunnels blowing off the East River, he met and called a HOPE count van for an old man with diabetes who said he had a home but could not afford his insulin, leaving his legs too weak to carry him home. 

A few blocks later, near Seneca Ave, he spoke in Spanish with a man in a tattered coat tossing bottles and cans pulled from the garbage into a shopping cart to recycle to buy food.  The man told Fr. Eric and his fellow volunteers, Christ the King parishioner Robert Garmendiz and Youth Ministry for Peace and Justice member Matthew Shuffler, that he was thankful they stopped to talk with him. 

“Being homeless is like being on an island of isolation and desolation,” Fr. Eric said. 

HOPE Volunteers counted 3,675 people sleeping on city streets last year, each suffering in his or her own island of desolation. Many suffered from mental illness and addiction.  Most had experienced a cascade of bad luck from apartment fires to family breakups that left them with few options.  

But why were more than 3,000 people choosing to sleep outdoors in the bitter cold instead of inside warm city shelters designed for their protection? 

“It’s one of coldest nights in winter so we want to get a look at who’s out there; what really is the need and why aren’t these people going into the shelters,” said Catholic Charities HomeBase eviction-prevention director Larissa Reyes during a Catholic Charities sponsored panel discussion at Bubo restaurant in Manhattan held immediately before the HOPE homeless count. “Why is it that even though these services are available are they still out there in the street?” 

Answers from shivering New Yorkers found huddled in boxes, cocooned in sleeping bags and hugging tight to heat seeping to the street from subway grates varied.  Pieced together anecdotally, however, they seemed to form a pattern. 

Lori Davis-West, a Catholic Charities consultant and HOPE count volunteer, said that when she asked men and women she met in her assigned area, Murray Hill in Manhattan, if they had a place to sleep, most, plagued by their own inner demons or external fears, refused city-sponsored van rides to shelters, saying they felt safer on the streets. 

“One guy said he was sleeping in the arms of the Lord,” said one Catholic Charities Hope count volunteer 

“It’s like a parallel universe,” Ms. Davis-West added.  “The same streets upper and middle income people, bankers and school children walk during the day are where homeless people sleep at night.” 

While this year’s survey results are not expected until late spring, the experience for the volunteers appeared immediate and lasting. 

“I felt blessed that the people I met welcomed us and let us tell them about housing and services available,” Fr. Cruz said.  “But I have to say I’m still thinking about them now, who they are, where they are and what they’re doing tonight.”