To Seek and Find
Snow crunches underfoot as the team of four follows tracks into a patch of woods behind a Target store in Chester. The deep chill of below-freezing temperatures and the stillness of the morning make it feel colder and even a touch eerie, given the task at hand. On this late January morning, well before the break of dawn, a Chesterfield County police officer, George Fisher, escorts a county social worker, two nonprofit directors and this reporter toward a known homeless encampment behind the Breckenridge Shopping Center, which faces Route 301.
The objective is to gather a “census” of people who are living without housing in the eastern portion of the county. It’s known as the Point-in-Time Count, an operation coordinated in the greater Richmond region twice a year by the nonprofit Homeward. Other outreach organizations and government agencies throughout Virginia carry out this same data gathering exercise during the last week of January each year, so that agencies can receive state and federal funding of services for the homeless.
“We’re not a direct service agency,” says Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward, “so data is one of our big things. This count is one of our big things.”
Fisher shines a flashlight along the path worn in the snow that blanketed the region in a blizzard days before. Following behind are Horne; Karen Stanley, the director of CARITAS, a charitable organization that provides an array of services to the region’s homeless population; and Brenda Sampe, a Chesterfield County social worker.
It’s clear the woods have had foot traffic by at least a person or two, and Fisher’s flashlight finds evidence about 100 yards in as the team encounters a two- or three-man tent. The waning moon is high and bright, hanging over the treetops, as the team walks up to the tent. Fisher flashes his light at the side of it.
“Hello! Anybody home?”
A man’s muffled, groggy voice answers from within, and the officer explains: “We just want to ask you a couple questions. You can stay inside the tent. It’s that time of year again.”
Outside the tent is a collection of items scattered about – a five-gallon bucket and a shopping cart with the carton and discarded aluminum cans from a 12-pack of Icehouse beer.
Even though it’s her first time helping with the headcount, Sampe seamlessly absorbs the task of surveying the man inside the tent. Because the count is done twice a year – in January and July – it’s not uncommon that the local homeless interviewees may have heard the questions before, either.
Sampe squats down on her haunches and talks through the tent, as close to the man as possible. His responses are mostly inaudible to the rest of the team. When asked, the man inside tells Sampe he’s 31 years old and has been homeless for two years. Later, he notes that he doesn’t need Chesterfield social services; he’s from Hopewell and receives them there.
In addition to collecting basic demographic details, the list of questions is probing in an attempt to learn more about each individual’s challenges and needs, physical illnesses, alcohol or substance abuse, mental health problems and other risk factors. To track the data without violating the survey takers’ privacy, the outreach workers ask only for the first two letters of the person’s first and last name.
But when Sampe mentions making possible future contact and asks for a phone number, the man gives out his cell number, which begins with an Ohio area code.
After Sampe is finished, the team moves farther into the woods, toward the edge of the privately owned commercial parcel and closer to Interstate 95, where tires are singing on the highway in the distance. About 60 yards from the first tent, another tent is surrounded by a more developed encampment with an assortment of things that have been dragged into the woods – three chairs, a chimenea, a small stove, a rake, several plastic tubs and even a mirror strung up on a pine tree. Fisher introduces the group and their reason for being there, and the voice inside talks back. “I don’t want nothin’ from ’em,” he says emphatically.
The team hikes back to their cars waiting outside the woods and moves on. Over the next hour and a half, the group works its way to four other stops where Fisher knows of homeless residents. All told, Fisher expects only about six people are living homeless in the immediate area.
“In Chesterfield, where it’s so developed, people know when someone’s living outdoors,” Horne says, adding, “There’s not hundreds of people in the woods in Chesterfield. There’s a handful. And there’s fewer than there used to be because there’s been targeted housing for homeless veterans. And they’ve all gotten housing.”
A short drive away, in another undeveloped plot of land, Fisher leads the procession toward a tent where they meet, unseen through his tent wall, a man who kindly declines to give a birthdate but identifies himself as being 50 to 60 years old and homeless continuously for three to four years. Sampe asks for the first two letters of his first name, which he gives, but when asked for the first two of his last name, he jokes: “I don’t remember them.” The women chuckle in response.
Sampe asks: “Any chronic physical illness?”
“No,” he answers, “no physical problems yet, as long as I don’t meet up with any fists or bricks or bats. I’ve run into a couple of them recently, including a gun. ... Some piece of garbage come up behind me and tried to take my backpack and stuff.” Sampe has a quick conversation with him about his alcohol use, which he denies is enough to cause problems. It helps him sleep. His biggest issue, he says, “is just economics, really.”
About 10 minutes later the team moves to another wooded corner behind a big box retailer where a tall, stand-up tent is heavily anchored to nearby trees with guide ropes. The tent has a vestibule, and the campsite is clean. A printed sign is attached to a wooden stake in the ground, reading, “No donations, please.”
Stanley and Horne remark that church groups sometimes deliver donated goods blindly to encampments, simply leaving items on the edge of the woods, akin to littering.
In this tent is a woman who identifies herself as approximately 60 years old. She speaks in accented English and later discloses that she is from Panama. She doesn’t consider herself homeless, however, because she owns a home in Enon, she says, although she’s been living outdoors for three years, estranged from a husband who is a military veteran. Sampe asks the woman if she has ever been the victim of violence, and the woman laughs with a hint of irony. “I don’t want to say anything.”
Back in the cars, Fisher patrols the parking lots near a Bojangles’ fast-food restaurant where he usually finds a man named Mr. Clark. It seems he’s a no-show this morning until a bearded African-American man wearing glasses and a coverall suit walks up. He’s carrying a cane-like stick – to walk on slick surfaces, he says. The group joins him in the Bojangles’, sitting around a cluster of tables as Mr. Clark holds court, recounting complicated dealings with a former employer and a sum of money owed to him. He says he’s 61 years old with a daughter and a home, but he camps in a field nearby. The data collection bogs down for 20 minutes or more until Sampe can complete the survey and move on.
Later, in the car, Horne remarks that the man’s fantastic story likely has threads of truth but that it would take the work of a case manager to connect the dots, with his consent, perhaps helping him to receive assets owed him and reuniting him with his family.
“I have such respect for the outreach workers and case workers on the front line,” she says. “But it’s renewed every time I do these things because I’m not a social worker. I’m a planner – I do funding and data and strategy and partnerships and systems.”
At 6:15 a.m., about an hour and a half after starting the headcount, the survey team pulls into the parking lot of the Chester YMCA where Fisher expects to find a younger man living in a Ford conversion van. The van is there, and Fisher rouses its occupant by knocking on the door. Out comes a barrel-chested white man, about 6 feet 2 inches tall, possibly in his 30s and wearing a hoodie, glasses and blue sneakers. He’s a known quantity to both Stanley and Fisher because of his YMCA membership and his participation in previous surveys. He is homeless by choice – supposedly choosing his mobile living situation and working a part-time job for the past three years so that he can pay off student loans. “The whole idea of staying in a van is so that I don’t have to pay rent,” he tells Sampe during the survey.
As the survey wraps up and the team prepares to drive off, Stanley wishes him well. “We’ll see you again in July.” Everybody laughs, but the man notes that he’s thinking of getting a commercial driver’s license to drive a big truck and live on the road.
“I might as well drive trucks for a living, get paid twice as much,” he says, “and dig myself out of this mess.”