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Social Work Students Join HOPE

Students Participate in NYC’s Annual Homeless Count

February 08, 2017
After midnight on February 7, Touro Graduate School of Social Work students canvassed the area around Penn station as part of New York City's annual count of the homeless population.
After midnight on February 7, Touro Graduate School of Social Work students canvassed the area around Penn station as part of New York City's annual count of the homeless population.

During the annual event, hundreds of volunteers fan out across New York City to count the number of homeless people. Homelessness is defined, in this case, as an individual who has no place to sleep at night. The number of homeless people is then tabulated by the city's Department of Homeless Services to better allocate resources for shelters and other emergency housing.

“We try to do this on the coldest night of the year because then the only people who are out are the chronically homeless,” explained Madeline Garcia, the overnight supervisor at the Penn Station Homeless Outreach Office of the Bowery Residence Committee. Garcia, along with two Touro professors and two members of the NYPD who followed at a distance, accompanied the GSSW students.

The protocol for the three Touro students—Batya Zachter, 20, Natalie Gomez, 27, and Dalida Eusebio, 34—was simple. Walk up and down the four blocks surrounding Penn station asking everyone a 13-question survey about the details of their living situation. If any individuals were homeless, the students gave them a card that listed the available shelters in New York. Those already sleeping were counted but not woken up. Frequently, the students were rebuffed. Two men slept on the east side of 31st Street under and the students marked down their location.

“I think we’re going to be a bit ignored,” said Zachter. “But I’m hoping we could help in some way. At least people will know we care.”

This was the first time the three students had participated in the count. Students from Touro’s Graduate School of Social Work have volunteered since 2008, according to Elhanan Marvit, Director of Administrative Services and the school’s Brooklyn Learning Extension. Marvit said participating in the count tied into the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, literally repairing the world, and the count actualized the mission of social work.  

“There are imperfections and injustices that we have an obligation to repair,” he said. “Social work’s mission is to create a world where people will realize their full potential—a socially just world free of poverty, discrimination and hunger and all those ills that we fight against.”

Marvit, who has been leading the volunteer HOPE count efforts at GSSW since the school began, said he hoped that students would take a lesson from the event.

“Most people don’t realize the enormity of the homeless problem in the city,” he said. “Through the count out students discover what it means to confront a homeless person and talk to them instead of just passing by… We’ve created a society with this extreme wealth, but we’ve lost our heart. We’re not protecting the most vulnerable.”

GSSW Assistant Director of Career Development and Enrollment Management Peter Stewart, who was also with the group, said that the experience typically opens the eyes of his students.

“You discover that people you wouldn’t think are homeless, really have nowhere to go,” he said. “It changes your perspective on how you view the homeless.”

When the volunteers arrived on the west end of 31st Street, Gomez spoke quietly with an elderly man who stood eating by a food truck. When he admitted that he was homeless, she provided him with a card listing all the shelters. Dalida spoke with another man in Spanish about his situation.

At one-thirty a.m. the group was in front of Madison Square Garden. Zachter struck up a conversation with a man wearing a sweatshirt and ripped gray sweatpants. A man in a black coat with a neatly trimmed goatee admitted to Dalida that he was homeless but wasn’t interested in a shelter.

Zachter was surprised by how readily many answered the questions.

“I expected people to be angry,” said Zachter. “Their life isn’t good and I figured they wouldn’t want to be bothered.”

The last person the group walked by lay on the floor, charging his phone by an outlet on the outside of the Penn Station building. Garcia quickly conferred with the students. They already had his information and he’d be going to the shelter later. The group counted eight homeless people in the four-block radius.

Gomez said she had learned something. 

“You can’t always assume things,” she said. “A person could dress a certain way and when you approach them, they say they’re homeless.”