The Weirdest Night of My Life’ — Counting the Homeless for the Census
There has been a shockingly small amount of media attention devoted to counting the nation’s homeless. Here’s a first person account that I discovered on the 2010 Census operation to count the homeless:
By Dan Solomon (Here’s the original article!)
Being counted for the 2010 census is easy enough, so long as you have an actual home with an address.
But the many homeless Americans get counted the old-fashioned way: by a fresh-faced gang of folks in their 20s in bright orange vests who travel in packs, walking under bridges and into tent cities, even into the woods as part of their sworn duties.
We caught up with Trevor (whose actual name was changed to protect his job), a census worker who found himself part of the agency’s TNSOL initiative — which stands for “targeted non-shelter outdoor location,” and which means your first half-hour on the job could well involve running into your guide while he’s masturbating in an alley.
Read on for highlights from Trevor’s trip into the trenches of the TNSOL.
Strength in Numbers, and No Need for a Handshake
“It was absolutely the weirdest night of my life,” Trevor says of TNSOL, which took place on March 31 throughout the country.
Trevor, like the vast majority of census workers, is a temp who was hired by another temp, and trained by still others — all of which is to say that there was no real way for him to be properly prepared for what he was about to encounter.
When the night started, Trevor and his fellow workers — the team worked as a group of eight, which he suspects may have been out of a “strength in numbers” approach to work that has some obvious risks, rather than out of a true need for eight people to do the job — caught up with their homeless guide. Who was, in fact, masturbating in the alley they’d been told they’d find him in.
“It took me a little while to figure out what he was doing,” he said. “And at that point we were already on our way.”
Just a Few Simple Questions
Even with awkward introductions out of the way, Trevor says the weirdness was just beginning:
“We only had three questions that we had to answer to make it a complete form — their name, their age, and their race. A lot of people don’t really know how old they are. One girl filled it out herself after taking a hit from her crack pipe, and she got it all wrong. We had to fill that one out again. But it’s really interesting — a lot of people were really approachable, because it doesn’t happen often that some nice person walks up and says, ‘Hi, what’s your name?’ A lot of them wanted to talk to us, they were excited about just being treated like a person.”
“Can You Spare Some …”
If you don’t have a job that involves specifically working with homeless people, your experience with them is probably restricted to the basic: being asked for change. So we asked — did that happen to the census workers, too?
“Oh, yeah. But we’re not allowed to give it to them. I felt kind of bad. A lot of them just need some sane, human interaction, but some wanted to know what they were going to get out of this.”
“I had this one guy come up to me while we were waiting for a food van. He was really sweet, and he was telling me all about how he just wanted to go see his family, how he was an alcoholic, and he just needs help. He asked me if I could help him, and I said, ‘Just tell me what I can do.’ And he said, ‘Can you get me a beer?’ I told him, ‘No — we’re friends now, dude, and friends don’t listen to a friend tell you that they’re an alcoholic and then go get them a beer.’”
The “no bribery” rule was a mandate from Uncle Sam, but Trevor explained that his masturbating guide backed that up.
“There’s a different law among the homeless people,” he said. “You don’t want to go around just offering people things, because it’s disrespectful. Which is too bad,” he adds. “Because our big plan was to bring a bag of hamburgers, just in case we needed some extra help.”
Which is funny, because we hear the lack of free hamburgers is exactly why Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann urged their census boycott, too.