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Vols count Queens homeless

“I don’t know if I’m nervous,” said Jill Sarber, walking down a brightly lit York College hallway and out into the dark, thirty-five degree night.
“I’m just wondering who we’ll encounter,” she said, following her two teammates as they began their quest to count the homeless in their assigned swath of Queens for the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) 2008 survey.
Team Six, or Team Paula as they called themselves, was a trio of Covenant House workers led by 23-year-old Woodside resident Paula Rote, of the Covenant House Faith Community. Sarber, also 23, lives in Brooklyn and works for Covenant House International’s Youth Service Organization; and Linda Soarez, the elder of the group at 30, was in town from Massachusetts, training before her dispatch to Florida as a Covenant House volunteer.
Doug Sherman, DHS’s Director of Intake Support for Family Services and the media coordinator for the Queens count, described the group as “very upbeat, very positive, very enthusiastic” as they drove to their starting point in Springfield Gardens to begin their portion of the homeless survey.
Sarber was surprised by the “suburbia” she found herself in, walking down tree-lined streets so quiet with front stoops so welcoming you could practically hear the summer crickets chirping and smell the grill smoke from summer backyard barbecues.
There was the occasional concrete wall, tagged with curls of spray paint, leading down to thickets of weeds and bushes strewn with glass bottles that popped under your feet. And the rare car hurtling by, emitting shockwaves of bass that made a neighborhood dog bark in reaction. But aside from that, all was quiet for Team Paula.
Until they spotted someone.
Armed with their maps and survey questions, the trio of volunteers stopped a young man, dressed warmly in a hooded fleece and jacket, and multi-colored winter hat, seemingly making his way home. The man’s oversized stud earrings glistened under the lamplight and his Sidekick glowed as he flipped it open and typed a message.
“So, tonight do you have a place that you would consider your home,” Rote asked, after the man agreed to participate in the survey.
“Yes, I do. Everyday,” the young man said, smiling and clearly surprised by the late night attention. “It’s kinda late. It’s 1:00 in the morning,” he said, laughing. A pair of iPod ear buds were tucked into his hood.
The group dismissed the young man after explaining that they had to survey everyone who was not sleeping or clearly working. They continued on, checking off streets on their map. “I think they’re making a very strong effort to be very thorough,” Sherman said, admitting that the chance of finding an actual homeless person in that part of town was “very slim to zero.”
Department of Homeless Services spokesperson Eric Deutch explained that a lack of homeless individuals could either be attributed to the effective work of his organization or the fact that a given survey area was low-density to begin with and was only canvassed as a matter of due diligence.
Deutch, who called Monday night’s count a “success,” said the HOPE 2008 results will not be released until spring, but he did note that DHS met its goal of 2,500 volunteers for the 2008 survey.
Shortly after passing a pair of men who looked nonplussed as they stood handcuffed behind a police cruiser, the Team Paula volunteers paused to consult their map.
“I’m sorry, my sense of direction takes a little while to charge up,” said Rote, smiling as she took her portable GPS device, nicknamed “Janice,” out of her pocket.
Orienting themselves, Paula exclaimed, “This isn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I expected to be cold, hungry and a little wet by this point. It’s definitely not as dangerous as my mother thought,” she said, grinning.
“She’s praying for me right now.”
As the group approached their minivan to end the night, they continued to the corner of the street until “Janice” exclaimed “Arriving at Destination.”
“I think it’s sort of nice walking around neighborhoods and not finding homeless people,” Rote said, as she and her teammates, trailed by Sherman and the accompanying police officer, completed the final stretch of Queens Metro Area 154.
“It’s a good sign for the work they’re doing. It’s a good sign for New York.”

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