Homeless people count

Apr 5, 2000 at 12:00 am
If it wasn’t for Mr. Shapiro, I wouldn’t have been here. In 1990 I said ‘fuck the census’, because I thought they would be too nosy," says a homeless man at Hart Plaza, who calls himself John Doe. The census brought out a lot of good-hearted volunteers to persuade homeless people to fill out forms, counting them in Detroit’s number for 2000. Among them are the Rev. Ann Johnson and Nate Shapiro.

Shapiro is a remarkably healthy-looking 80-year-old resident of Southfield and a World War II veteran. He had been serving breakfast to homeless Detroiters every morning for the last few weeks, while telling them how important it is to fill out a census form. The engineering company that Shapiro runs, and three other businesses, donated $7,000 each. "We wanted to do something for the city and are aware of the homeless problems. The census helps them to get more money for housing and shelters. This way we help the homeless and the city," says Shapiro.

In the process, Shapiro discovered the friendliness of Detroit’s homeless. One touching moment he describes was when a 10-year-old girl told him that she prayed for food the evening before. She got a breakfast at Hart Plaza. "I am doing this because it feels good," Shapiro says

Each person not counted is a loss of $3,000 over a 10-year period, according to the city’s awareness campaign. Nobody knows exactly how many people are living in the streets of Detroit. Numbers of 5,000-13,000 circulate, but there could easily be more. This population could make the difference in reaching the 1 million mark; even most homeless people know this. "If we don’t sign up, we lose the funding for my food," says Paul Costner. He says he has been on the streets for nine summers after losing his house and part of his family after a house fire. The fire marked his body for life. Costner refers to Hart Plaza as Paul’s Plaza, where census workers counted homeless people on Wednesday, March 29. People in shelters and at soup kitchens were counted the previous Monday and Tuesday.

"It went off like a bang," according to Ron Washington, administrative assistant at the Detroit Veterans Center. He is very satisfied with the shelter count. "At least 140 people filled out a form," he said. Luther Jenkins, emergency director at Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) on Peterboro says more than 230 people have been counted at his shelter; he called the response "close to 100 percent."

Andy Hupp, coordinator for special places at the Census Bureau says that it is not possible to get all the homeless counted. According to Hupp, "There is a lot of mistrust in the government, especially among this population." At Hart Plaza most people that come for Shapiro’s breakfast fill out a form. "I am not afraid of the government. I have nothing to hide," says a man who doesn’t want to reveal his name because living in a shelter doesn’t look good on his résumé. "But I know a lot of guys that are afraid, because of arrest warrants. They won’t come to Hart Plaza and fill out a paper."

The Rev. Ann Johnson, director of Eastside Emergency Center on Kercheval, hopes that more people will be counted than were counted in 1990. Last Saturday she put a homeless choir of almost 70 people together to perform at the Revival Tabernacle at Mack and Mt. Elliott. The performance was intended both as a charity fundraiser and a way to spread the word about the census. Since she started a soup kitchen in 1982, her whole life has been dedicated to the homeless. "I was homeless myself when I was a teenage mother. I feel that nobody seems to care about these people, but they do count," says Johnson, adding, "If we don’t get the full count, we will lose funding for people who are mentally ill or live in shelters. I feel it is my obligation to those who are homeless to use the best of my ability to get all of them counted."

Christine McCord, 37 and a mother of four, lives at the Eastside Emergency Center. She hopes the shelter will only temporarily be home. "I am glad I count, but I’d rather have a roof over my head. Could you help me with that?"

At Johnson’s soup kitchen on Harper, most people filled out a form. Sarah, 21, is eating with her baby boy; she hopes to return to her house after her crack-addicted boyfriend gets his act together. "I only know that I had to sign," says Sarah. Laughing, Johnson says, "I threatened, if you don’t fill in the form, you won’t eat."

The Census Bureau admitted that they missed too many people in 1990, particularly minorities and the poor. They counted approximately 1,300 homeless. Back then, the enumerators visited the shelters for only one day. Rev. Johnson decided in 1990 to go out on the streets herself. "It was cold and very dark that night. People were living in empty buildings. In an apartment (building) on Chalmers we found 54 people living on one floor," says Johnson. She is satisfied that census workers went out three days this time, but has a critical remark. "The first ‘call for action’ was in February 2000 and that was the first time providers sat together at the table. I would have started earlier."

Edwina Henry, a representative of the mayor’s office admits that timing is always a very sensitive issue, especially among those who were around in 1990. "Most important is that we did bring people to the table." Henry says that most people working for the city are involved with the census. "Our role is bringing the community together and making them aware of the importance of the census. Six months ago we started having individual meetings with providers about the census dates. We provided the Census Bureau with lists of shelters. Together with the shelters we organized parties on the counting days. We got the conversation started." The city worked on a shoestring budget, according to Henry. Donations were very helpful. Henry praises Detroiters, saying, "It is the people in the community that are driving this effort and some are super-engaged."

Nicole Bosch is a Dutch freelance writer now living in Detroit. Send comments to [email protected]