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In A Freezing Cold City, Counting New York’s Homeless


Counting New York’s homeless, volunteers search the City overnight, estimating the problem in Project Hope. CERT specialist, Frank Farance gave us an inside look.

By David Stone

Set up by the Department of Homeless Services, each year, Project Hope sends volunteers into select corners of New York, capturing samples of who’s still on the streets in the worst of winter.

This year, it happened on January 27th.

Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member Frank Farance joined in and shared his experience.

Last we caught up with Farance, he went through another, more dramatic gig: Simulating a tunnel disaster in Brooklyn.

Team #1, ready to hit the winter streets. Frank Farance is in the middle, wearing his CERT cap and yellow vest.

Counting New York’s Homeless Protocol

“The outside temperature was below freezing so it was CODE BLUE,” Farance said. “Our protocol is to make sure everyone is alive.

“If someone is sleeping,” a “Hello” or a nudge gets them to move.

On this night, of sixteen found, eight were homeless, but only one agreed a shelter escort. That fact stresses New York City’s problem. On a winter night, most homeless preferred staying out in the cold to the shelter system.

But that was not the core of Team #1’s job. They were out to count the homeless.

Because a comprehensive canvas would require many more volunteers and time, Project Hope samples areas to catch an estimate.

“Our turf was Central Park from 102 to 110 Street.”

The view from atop Springbanks Arch in Central Park at night.

“Night time in Central Park is very different than day time,” Farance recalled.

“The perspectives and orientation are much easier during daytime, and night time in winter looks different because there are no leaves on trees. Even with GPS applications on smartphones, it can be disorienting because the visual cues — which would confirm/deny one’s mapping of GPS position upon the ground truth — just look different.”

CERT Techniques in Play

Techniques developed by CERT teams at work in counting New York’s homeless during Project Hope…

  • Canvassing
  • Psychological First Aid
  • Interacting with the Public
  • Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)
  • Personal Safety

“When searching the Springbanks Arch tunnel we used the ‘Electric Tag’ technique with the Buddy System,” Farance reported.

“A chain of people such that every person has immediate visual sight of one’s neighbors, but the first person in the chain doesn’t necessarily see the last person.  

“With this safety technique, if there were any safety issue, it would be immediately known, known by the whole team, and the whole team could respond … rather than the non-buddy system where a person can disappear (or get injured) and no one knows about it or doesn’t know where/when it occurred.”

Even on a cold night devoted to the task, at the end, they “turned back home with a stop at the Reservoir to snap nighttime selfies.”

Finally, they gathered again at their Hunter College base for debriefing and receiving our shirts and a Thank You letter from Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“I look forward to next year’s count,” Farance concluded.


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