By Jonathan Seaton, West Point Class of 2011February 8, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y., Feb. 8, 2010 -- On the evening of Jan. 31, 65 West Point cadets piled into a waiting bus and several vans while the majority of their fellow classmates prepared for classes the next day or went to sleep.
They were on their way to be a part of a volunteer event known as HOPE (Homeless Outreach Population Estimate). HOPE is an annual event that began in New York City in 2005 with the purpose of estimating the number of unsheltered people living on city streets, subway platforms, parks and other public places.
Ultimately the project, which is coordinated and executed by the Department of Homeless Services, aims to help gauge the success of outreach strategies against street homelessness.
The cadets participating in the trip piled on layers of extra clothing in preparation for a long, cold night of trekking through the streets of New York City. The preparation was warranted due to the well below freezing temperatures in NYC on this particular night.
Upon departure from West Point the cadets split into two groups with about half going to the Washington Heights area and the other half going to the midtown area. When they reached their respective destinations they were placed into groups of 4-6 people which included civilians from all walks of life who had also volunteered for HOPE. Each small group received an area in which to conduct their surveys and an overview from the district captain about techniques for conducting the survey.
After receiving the briefing from the district captain the small groups spent time planning their routes and strategies for completing their tasks. Additionally, each team had to select a team leader who was responsible for leading the small group throughout the night and certifying that the survey was properly executed. Many of the cadets volunteered to take these positions.
Just after midnight on Feb. 1, the cadets and approximately 2,000 other volunteers stepped out on to the streets of New York City to begin the administering the HOPE survey.
The task was simple: approach everyone on the streets and ask them a few questions; Do you have a place to stay tonight' What kind of place is it' However, many of the cadets learned firsthand how hard it is to get people to participate in this type of research.
Although some New Yorkers refused to answer the survey questions, many were accommodating and appreciated the fact that volunteers would consider being on the streets of New York in the freezing cold at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning to help the homeless.
During the course of the survey the cadets had many opportunities to help the homeless as well. For example, if a person did not have anywhere to go in response to the survey, the volunteers could provide them with a ride to a local shelter for the night if they so desired. Some groups came across only a few people bundled up and asleep on the streets, while other groups interviewed dozens of people on subway platforms.
According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, an estimated 671,888 people experienced homelessness in one night in January 2007. The 2010 HOPE in New York City determined there were just more than 3,111 unsheltered people living in the five boroughs, which was a 29 percent decrease since 2005. The 2011 results have not been published.
Many of the cadet volunteers said that they learned a great deal during the trip.
"You always see the homeless out there in the city, but it was nice to finally have to chance to actually help improve the situation," Class of 2011 Cadet Brandon Tuell said.
"Though I didn't get to help anyone directly, I know that my participation in administering the survey will lead to good things down the road," said Cadet Preston Horejsi, Class of 2013.
The trip was organized through the West Point Sociology Program to allow the cadets to not only support the community but help them experience a part of America that is often hidden from view or shunned into the dark recesses of the modern world.
"Homelessness is a problem that affects somewhere between one or two percent of the U.S. population at any given time and statistics from HUD suggest that 40 percent of all homeless men are veterans," explained Col. Irving Smith, the West Point Sociology Program director.
"Cadet participation in HOPE has several purposes," Smith said. "First it provides cadets an opportunity to see how homelessness affect people we can discuss it in the classroom all day but seeing it up close really leaves an impression on cadets. Second, participation allows cadets to give back to the community. Third, participating in the survey allows cadets to evaluate the methods used by a particular organization to understand a research question."
More information about homelessness and how to participate in next year's HOPE can be found at www.nyc.gov/dhs.