How volunteering for the “Point-in-Time Survey” changed the way I see people experiencing homelessness.

This week I helped out with the Point-in-time survey that Big Bend Homeless Coalition coordinated.  Monday through Wednesday about 85 volunteers went to shelters, wandered the streets, and went into the woods to talk to people experiencing homelessness and ask questions about how long they had been homeless, if they had chronic health issues, substance abuse, mental heath issues, education level, if they were a Veteran, and other things related to risk factors and their experiences.  We surveyed almost 650 people who were in emergency shelters or living on the streets.  People who are living in transitional housing will be included in the total numbers that will be announced tomorrow.  There are surely even more people who we did not talk to so the actual number of people without a home is even larger.  They estimate that there are around 1000 people in the area who are homeless.  One thousand people.  That’s a lot of people.

One of the main reasons I wanted to help with this is to be able to put a face, and story with statistics I hear.  Sure you can hear that there are 1000 people in the Tallahassee area who don’t have their own place to call home, and you can hear statistics on how many have mental heath problems, have a college degree, or how many people don’t have the stereotypical problems that you associate with homelessness, but their still this kind of impersonal, abstract idea of a person.  Most of the people I talked to seemed like nice, normal people.  Some had substance abuse problems, some had been in prison, some had mental heath problems, but talking with them they didn’t seem that different from the guy you might start up a conversation with in line at the coffee shop or sitting next to you at the bar.  For me it made the “homeless” seem less scary, less foreign, and more like normal people who happen to be in a different situation and different place in their life.  I wondered, how many of these people could have a very different life if they had someone to help get through tough times before they lost their home, or to get the help they need to move on to better circumstances now.  Sure, some of them probably wouldn’t do any better no matter how much people tried to help, but how many could have a home, stable income or other aid, and live a life where they could worry about what to cook for dinner tonight rather than if someone was going to steal their few possessions as they slept?  I won’t forget the lady who used to work at an organization helping those who are experiencing homelessness, and  now has no home herself, or the man who has bipolar and depression, and wants to be able to get medication to help him so he can find and keep a job again.  I won’t forget the man who came to Tallahassee because in his town there was no where for him to sleep that didn’t get him kicked out or arrested, or how, as I was walking around in the rain and the cold, I wondered how many people would be sleeping in wet clothes with wet blankets on a cold night…and thinking of them as people and individuals, not some nameless, faceless population.

Even more, as a Christian, I can’t help but think of how many times we say something about God loving people, and how we “love” people, but probably never give a second though to people experiencing homelessness.  We live in a broken world and I think us Christians need to remember that God doesn’t just care about those of us who go to church, but deeply cares about those of us who have broken lives, no matter if they are living behind an abandoned building, or next door to us, or in an exorbitant mansion.