Finding the Hidden: Learning from Chicago's Point in Time Homeless Count

By Jack Nuelle, Fourth Year Student and Civic Journalist for Chicago Studies

At first glance, spending a night in the iron jaws of a frozen Chicago January does not seem the best way to be taking count of the city’s homeless population. The Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, however, has a method to its madness.

A slew of volunteers from across the Chicago area, including over 30 from the University of Chicago, worked in groups of three or four to canvass assigned census blocks from last Wednesday evening to the wee hours of Thursday morning. Their task was to tally and, if possible, survey any homeless individuals they were able to find. 

This Point in Time Homeless count, as it is officially known, has a twofold purpose. According to Adriana Camarda, a representative for the city and co-organizer of the count, the effort both demonstrates a need for federal funding and provides an annual benchmark figure in the long-term fight to end homelessness in Chicago.

During the count, those who are observed as homeless have their race, age, and genders recorded and are asked to take an optional survey to help the city gather demographical information about this population. The survey is accompanied by an offer of a new hat and gloves, to be given out regardless of participation, compliments of the city.

Across the United States, during the same 10-day span in January, every major U.S. city is responsible for compiling numbers from their own counts. It’s a nationwide intake of breath before the plunge; the systematic preparation before the annual massive effort that is confronting the problem of urban homelessness across America. Volunteers brave the weather, ghosts slipping through silent and chilled city streets, to search for the other ghosts - the ones left out in the cold.

Here in Chicago, and presumably through the rest of America, the annual count also marks a time for a converging of many different backgrounds, viewpoints, and experiences. Many of the participating UChicago students that assembled in the West Englewood basement of Thresholds—a leading service for the mentally ill in Chicago, and one of the agencies helping with the count — were first interested in the scope of homelessness as an endemic social ill. They came there as political scientists, sociologists, and students of public policy. In the beginning, the count, for many, was a chance to see firsthand the policy and societal structures they had learned about in class.

However, personal investment and approach were also mixed in with many volunteers’ motivations. People came to help because they were interested—both in homelessness as a sociopolitical phenomenon and in helping those less fortunate. No one exemplified this spirit more completely than Liz Denhup, a fourth year sociology major in the College. Sitting with several other UChicago students at a worn linoleum table, making easy conversation with all of them, Liz appeared to be simply another sharp, socially conscious product of an elite institution. However, when someone asked the magic question,  “Why are you here?” those first impressions slid away as quickly as they first appeared. Liz had been homeless, despite her obvious Caucasian roots, despite her adolescence in the shadow of Yale University, despite being an AP student. Before winning a Questbridge scholarship to the University of Chicago, she struggled on the streets for a year, facing the same discrimination, stigmatization, and desperation weighing down on many of those shivering on Chicago’s streets today. “People treat you like you are subhuman when you are homeless…it really burns when people won’t look at you,” Liz said.

This human desire to push back against the dehumanization of other humans seems to be the real root of the count. When this is the root, a true understanding of the event becomes easier. Chris Skrable, UCSC Associate Director for Community-Based Research & Experiential Learning, summed it up nicely: “I would do this again, because I can totally see where this fits.” Once the methodology is realized, the purpose becomes clear, and the volunteers are even more eager to help.

Even so, the fact that this is just a count and nothing more is still tough for some volunteers to rationalize. Sarah Spergel, a third year in the College, didn’t “feel like what we were doing was that…huge [a] thing on our part.” As Paul Mireles at Thresholds stressed, “as much as you’d like to provide services to someone, or other assistance, we’re just not doing that tonight.” In this then, the homeless count is a lesson in restraint, an effort to do the bare minimum to make the maximum possible later.

Weaving through silent and snow shrouded streets in the shadow of Midway airport, every patch of darkness nestled in the corners of industrial parks and close packed single story bungalows seemed like a person. In the end, it was always just darkness, night cheekily playing pretend. The count pressed on.

This, this was why this event was so important, this thoroughness, because by being exhaustive, others didn’t have to. Even with no counting to be done, the neighborhood around Midway airport was covered, and those who decide such things could direct resources to where they were better needed.

Scrolling through empty streets and counting zero homeless persons calls for the strongest reality check of all, because those involved in a task want some tangible result of their efforts. But, not seeing the homeless on one of the coldest nights of the year was entirely a good thing, and coming to this understanding was, for many of these volunteers a lasting way to appreciate the full humanity of Chicago’s homeless population.

On their rounds at 31st and Cermak, perched on the cusp of Pilsen, Spergel and fellow UChicago student Ratuja Redey reaffirmed this. When they saw several men warming themselves under an underpass: “They were happy to talk with us, but they didn’t want to take the survey. I think they had had bad experiences with social services.”

This count happened so the future experiences, of those men and people like them, with social services are more beneficial for everyone involved. “The homeless,” like all people, are each one unique. They do not fit neatly into established molds, and they push back against the generalizations inevitable in a demographic head count. This person-to-person count works to inform those working to end homelessness, so this nuanced and complicated problem is tackled in a similarly nuanced and comprehensive way. The varied social, political, and financial backgrounds of those who were perusing the city is a good first step, and helps to bring a sense of familiarity, and unity between two distinctly separate entities—home and the streets.