In the Dark, In the Cold, Counting the Homeless

The woman popped up from the pile of blankets she had laid out on a dirty patch of sidewalk and took a look at the ring of people surrounding her. She patted her woolen beanie self-consciously. "Why you takin' pictures?" she complained sleepily to a photographer. "I ain't put my hair on."

Crystal is 42, and she's been homeless about four years now. Sometimes she sleeps inside at a friend's house, but mostly she's right here at night, on a deserted stretch of road in East Dallas not far from where a DART train comes screeching by. She keeps most of her things in a baby stroller, a blue stuffed puppy with long purple hair dangling from the handle. Her knee is bothering her. She should be receiving disability checks, but there's some kind of problem. She needs medical attention for this knee, she told the people around her, throwing back a green blanket to show how swollen it is. Can they help?

Crystal is one of several thousand people who were counted last night as part of the seventh annual point-in-time homeless count and census. Organized by Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the count takes some 200 volunteers to shelters and outdoor encampments where homeless people are known to stay. Four-hundred and 50 major cities in the U.S. do such counts in the last 10 days of January, a requirement from HUD to be eligible for federal funding. This year's Dallas count was sponsored by the Real Estate Council, who also brought out some 50 volunteers to help.

According to Mike Faenza, MDHA's president and CEO of MDHA, even though precise numbers are difficult to come by, counting homeless people and taking census information -- about their veteran status, their education, how long they've been homeless -- helps to see trends in Dallas county.

"You're not going to be able to count all the homeless people or get exact figures," he tells Unfair Park. "But you'll be able to see what trends are if you're consistent. So it's seeing how much progress you're making."

It's especially crucial now as MDHA and their partners work to create 1,800 more units of affordable housing by 2015, with the ultimate goal of ending homelessness in Dallas county permanently. But homelessness in the city is still growing, Faenza says. Ninety percent of them are from right here in Dallas County.

"We haven't made a big gain in terms of people who are living in shelters, because there's been substantial numbers of new homeless people coming in," he says. "Not from out of town. That's a myth. It's because of the economy, because of people losing insurance, because of cutbacks in health and human services."

Tonia Adams is a caseworker from the city's Crisis Intervention Unit. She was part of the few teams who went to visit outdoor homeless encampments; the majority of volunteers, and the majority of the city's homeless, were in shelters last night. But MDHA estimates some 200 to 300 people still sleep on the street each night. Teams with police escorts went to spots where people are known to stay. Adams looked at Crystal's knee and told her she'd be able to help her find some free medical care.

"Call me tomorrow," she told the woman. "I'll pick you up here from this spot and take you to a hospital."

"Thank you," Crystal replied. "God bless you."

The team covering this patch of East Dallas didn't have to work very hard to find people sleeping outside. After chatting with Crystal, they hopped in their van and drove less than five minutes, to a larger group sleeping near Jeffries and Hickory, not far from Fair Park. Tom McIntyre was there when they arrived; he's been feeding homeless people every few nights for 15 years. He had a table set up behind his van, and he was handing out hamburger patties, mashed potatoes, candy, sliced apples.

"No more sandwiches?" a guy asked with disappointment.

"I got some apples," McIntyre offered.

"I don't have a mouth," the guy replied, showing off his lack of teeth.

"You can suck on some candy," McIntyre replied, handing him some. The guy asked for five dollars.

"No," McIntyre said gently. "I'll say a prayer for you though." Soon after, he was out of food and began packing up to leave, as volunteers fanned out to start taking data.

"I don't care how cold it is or how hot it is," McIntrye said. "I'm gonna be here."

Nearby, a woman in her 40s said she has to sleep outside because of how strict the curfews are at the shelters. By the time she's done with her dialysis appointments, she says, it's too late for her to get in anywhere. "They treat us like we're nobody out here," she added wearily.

Next to her, a tiny, smoky-voiced woman named Sherry, 59, cheerily explained why she doesn't need to marry her boyfriend, Sharone, who was sitting up next to her underneath their blankets. "I'm gonna be with him the rest of my life. I'm gonna terrorize him," she told Louis Adams, Tonia's husband and another Crisis Intervention caseworker. "I've been married twice, and he's been married twice. This is the first man I've loved in 30 years."

"Do you have medical problems?" Louis asked gently.

"God, yes," Sherry said. "That's why I'm homeless. I'm on my third pneumonia. This one's been with me a while."

When I ask her why she's sleeping outdoors and not in a shelter, she snapped exasperatedly, "That's a stupid question. You can't ask people that." After a moment, she added, "Who wants to be in a shelter with a buncha idiots? I'm not going to have someone younger and less educated bossing me around, telling me when bedtime is, telling me when I can have a drink." She says she graduated from Texas Tech and is a licensed commercial pilot. "I'm highly educated," she said plaintively.

She hopped out of the sleeping bag. She was barefoot. After a moment, she calmed down and thanked the volunteers for coming, sweetly shaking everyone's hand and batting her eyes.

Our group's last stop of the night was under a bridge. A married couple, Don and Natalie Smith, started taking census information from another married couple who have set up a makeshift room on the sidewalk made from blankets and old suitcases.

Nearby, Louis talked with a guy in a blue shirt. He asked about medical problems.

"I've got high blood pressure and Hep C," the guy says. He smiled brilliantly. "But I've been living life right. Next year, you won't see me."

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan