Census project looks to make homeless people count in city

Volunteers comb streets for a night to get numbers

April 25, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Patrick Barnhardt piloted the city-owned white Yukon sport utility vehicle through rush-hour traffic last night while his co-pilot scanned the sidewalks near Fells Point, searching for bench sleepers, shopping cart pushers and anybody else who looked unsheltered.

Barnhardt and Meghan Haswell were assigned to help count Baltimore's street people in the city's first homeless census last night. Veteran outreach workers, they knew the names of many they passed.

"I know him. He stays with his family, and he's got a job doing demolition work," Barnhardt said, nodding toward a man waving from a church's front steps. They looked for Ed, who usually sleeps behind a green electrical generator at the Fleet and South Eden streets.

They pulled over at the sight of two unfamiliar faces, buddies propping each other up at South Broadway and Eastern Avenue.

The men, who identified themselves only as Clyde and Roger, leaned against the concrete foundation next to the accounting offices of Wilder & Stein.

Both agreed to be counted, an auspicious start to the five-hour-long tally that wrapped up at 10 p.m.

Clyde, an oily San Francisco 49ers cap pressed low on his forehead, answered the pair's questions for the demographic survey that is part of the census. But he wasn't interested in finding shelter for the night.

"We're on the street because we choose to be on the street," he said taking the final slug from a fifth of McCormick vodka.

His pal Roger, dressed in aqua hospital scrubs, drifted in and out of sleep during the short interview. This is his 15th year living on the street.

"Can I tell you something?" Roger said. "I need someplace to lay my head at tonight."

That basic need was the reason nearly 80 volunteers and advocates for the poor fanned out across town last night, targeting spots like the waterfront plaza in Fells Point, and the area around a former firehouse in the 700 block of Eutaw St.

According to long-cited estimates, Baltimore's homeless are said to number about 3,000, roughly five times the number of emergency shelter beds available in the city.

But new regulations are requiring cities to take a head count and stop guessing their homeless populations to receive federal money to defray the cost of housing, feeding and transitioning the homeless.

Barnhardt, who has been working for the city's homeless agency for about 3 1/2 years, said he doubted the night's effort would accurately pin down the number.

"They could have had a better count during the blizzard, when the city had drop-in places for the homeless that filled up," he said. Midway through the evening, Barnhardt and Haswell had logged exactly three names in their files. At first they thought a fourth man who was using a wheelchair may have been homeless, but he told them that he stays in an apartment in Southwest Baltimore, where they dropped him off.

Absent, so far, were homeless families and youths .

"We're missing a whole group of people who don't have their names on a lease someplace because they're staying with someone," Haswell said. "That's a problem."

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