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Column: Out in the cold, counting the people who need help in our city

BY JIMMY FROST

VIRGINIA BEACH — I thought twice about rolling out of a warm bed, taking a hot shower and heading out the door at 3:30 a.m. But I walked out the door, and I was immediately assaulted by the cold, damp air.

I volunteered for the Virginia Beach Point-in-Time count, in which city staff and volunteers head out at 4 a.m. to find and survey people sleeping outdoors. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates this annual survey, held within a 24 hour period, of homeless people whether they are sheltered or unsheltered. 

It helps determine what services those who are sleeping outdoors might need and funding levels for programs the city can apply for in the next budget cycle to help homeless people.

Questions must be asked as written. Responses must be recorded as given. You cannot make assumptions. If people do not want to participate, you make an “observational” survey.

The time of day makes sense. Given all of the places folks might choose to bed down for the night, people will scatter before some of the places might even open for business.

I’ve driven past several of the places we encountered people, and I’d never even noticed people were there, perhaps because I was too early or too late, perhaps because I just wasn’t paying enough attention. But there are certainly are people living on our streets, and each of them has their own story.

Some of the people we interviewed knew we were coming that day. For others, it must have been quite a surprise when four strangers with clipboards and flashlights arrived, waking them up so early to ask a bunch of questions pertaining to their circumstances. Police were there for security, but kept back so as not to needlessly intimidate these folks.

Some people refuse to stay in the shelter. Others may not be aware of the services offered by the city. Others fear and distrust the government, especially the police.

The reasons they are homeless vary. One man my “team” interviewed had limited English and seemed guarded. Watching the dialogue between him and the team leaders I realized he might be terrified if he were in the country illegally. 

I used Google Translate on my phone, spoke a question into it, pushed the “play” button. I assured him that we weren’t there to cause any trouble for him. We only wanted to help him. He seemed reassured, even smiled.

After finishing the interview, I climbed back into the front seat of the Police SUV and wondered how confusing a place America must be for undocumented immigrants living on the street. 

Some from the government might want to find you and deport you. Others from the government just want to find you and help you.

We left him with the same bag each person that responded to the survey received, filled with things they might find useful, snacks, an Hampton Roads Transit pass, an emergency blanket and more.

Having spent only four hours out and about in the cold weather, my knees, hips and back were starting to ache from being on the concrete for so long. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to be subjected to that same stress constantly.

No matter how high life may take you, it can knock you down just as far much faster.

Besides the weather, most chilling to me was several people we encountered who were in my age bracket. 

I thought back to the days when we might have been in school, making plans for the future or dreaming for a better one. And here I was many years later, talking to people Virginia Beach would like to help, learning a new appreciation for all the blessings I take for granted.


Frost is a web designer, campaign consultant, photographer and writer who is a lifelong resident of Virginia Beach.


© 2019 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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