Fanning out to count Philadelphia’s homeless (with video)

    A video essay follows volunteers as they spend a winter night tracking down homeless people in the nooks and crannies they seek out to avoid the cold.

    Melissa Berkey-Gerard stuffs her hands down into her coat pockets as she walks quickly through a SEPTA concourse in Center City.

    When she notices a form huddled against the cold, she leans down and says, “Keep warm.”

    Berkey-Gerard is a volunteer helping to conduct a homeless count in the concrete network of tunnels under the city.  In an open expanse under City Hall, as many as 15 people try to sleep.

    Berkey-Gerard and her fellow volunteers are working against a deadline.

    The federal government requires the count to be complete by year’s end, and it’s Jan. 31. Bad weather already has forced the count to be postponed once.

    The census happens every two years and is called the Housing and Urban Development Department Point in Time count. Project H.O.M.E., an advocacy group for the city’s homeless, conducts the HUD census and also performs its own count four times a year.

    About 40 volunteers fan out to find homeless people where they sleep. They poke around the Market East Station and Suburban Station. They canvass the El platforms, PATCO stations, and the Broad Street line entrances.

    The volunteers had been warned not to go into abandoned buildings or to wake people up.

    A light snow falls as they work. Beth Lewis, Project H.O.M.E.’s director of the Outreach Coordinations sector, walks through the SEPTA concourse.

    “Because it is hidden from view,  it often is not known to many people that there’s a whole community of people experiencing homelessness right here underground,” she says.

    Around her, people sleep on cardboard, covered with dirty blankets, surrounded by tattered bags.

    Dave Holloman, the coordinator of Homeless Services at the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health, makes a tally on his clipboard.

    A SEPTA officer standing in the doorway of a women’s bathroom asks the group for help.

    A heavy-eyed woman is refusing to leave the bathroom. Berkey-Gerard and Holloman ask her if she’d like to go to a shelter but can’t convince her to come out. They move on.

    In all, the volunteers counted 359 unsheltered homeless on the streets and in the concourse.  Last year the number was 297.  No matter what the digits are, Lewis knows that an accurate count is hard to obtain.

    “We’re not seeing a lot of people who are hidden, so when we do this, we know that whatever we count is always an underestimate.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.