The Homeless: an Urban Population or Real People?
Homelessness is a serious problem, especially in urban environments. City officials often need to count how many homeless individuals and families populate their areas so they can develop adequate assistance programs and shelters. They must also be able to determine if homeless numbers are increasing so they can plan appropriately. However, counting the nomadic and occasionally fugitive homeless population is not an easy task, as New York City has discovered.
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Ben McGrath writes about New York’s “Shadow Count” plan, developed and administered by Dr. Kim Hopper, a medical anthropologist at Nathan Kline Institute and formerly the president of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Shadow Count hired graduate students to act as decoys for the homeless for one “night of homeless playacting alongside the truly suffering” (56).
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Nor is it meant to offend that the plan calls for sending dozens of graduate students, more shabbily dressed than usual, into the streets for a night of homeless playacting alongside the truly suffering--a role, incidentally, for which each student will be paid a living wage. The tally was to have been conducted last Monday, but then another nor'easter struck, rendering the hardships of winter-without-shelter perhaps more vivid than most impersonators would have liked. The project was postponed a week.
Dr. Kim Hopper, a medical anthropologist at the Nathan Kline Institute and the former president of the National Coalition for the Homeless, is the architect of what the city is calling the Shadow Count,
Shadow Count is based upon a model known as “plant-capture”: [An explanatory sentence ending with a colon introduces the long quotation.]
The graduate student decoys were instructed to try to pass for homeless people on the street but act stable, “well-behaved and approachable” (56). Based on the city’s past effort to count the homeless in 1990, Hopper advised the decoys not to mingle with actual homeless people. In 1990 some decoys lived among the homeless for several days, and there were hurt feelings when it was discovered that the decoys were not really down on their luck but just people acting.
You plant a known quantity of itinerant decoys among the street population at large, and see how many of them you can spot in a night’s worth of searching for actual homeless people; the percentage of decoys missed ought to resemble the percentage of the true population unaccounted for in your surveyor’s ledgers. (56) [The long quotation is indented.]
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Also, one of the decoys unexpectedly learned about the adaptive and occasionally nurturing culture of the homeless. When she showed up in one of the underground havens inhabited by a number of homeless people, she was wearing appropriately shabby clothing. As she noted, “A lot of us had this idea, you know, that homeless people are down and out, and can’t do their laundry very often.... So the first thing this couple said to me when we kind of hooked up was ‘Wow, we’ve got to get you some better clothes’”(58).
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Dorinda Welle, a former student of Hopper's, and now herself a medical anthropologist, was a particularly effective impostor fifteen years ago. She quickly befriended a struggling couple living on the lower level of Penn Station--it was the de-facto drug-free zone, she learned--and soon found herself attached, as though she'd joined a family. "After, like, two nights, you start to see commuters as outsiders," Welle recalled, noting that she'd once had to defend the group from a band of mischievous suburban teen-agers. "And it was poignant to have to leave. We had a whole night of looking back and memorializing those five nights. They were saying, 'Wow, you know, when you first came in here you looked so lost, like a doe in the headlights. Aren't you glad you met up with us? We showed you how to handle it.' "
Judging from Welle's experience, though, aspiring decoys might not want to take Hopper's crummy-hat suggestion too literally. "A lot of us had this idea, you know, that homeless people are down and out, and can't do their laundry very often, so we showed up in dirty sweatshirts, and clothes that were just really grungy," Welle said. "So the first thing this couple said to me when we kind of hooked up was 'Wow, we've got to get you some better clothes.' "
McGrath, Ben. “Dept. of Calculation CRED.” The New Yorker 14 Mar. 2005: 56-58.