Welcome to this year’s final issue of the Natural Hazards Observer, dedicated to homelessness and disasters.
In January 2013, my friends and I volunteered for the New York City Point-in-Time (PIT) count of unsheltered homeless individuals. This survey takes place every year and the data, like data from other PIT counts across the country, is used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for its biannual reports on homelessness in the United States.
Our survey site was located on the border between two of Brooklyn’s most dangerous neighborhoods, Brownsville and East New York. It was an extremely cold New York winter night and the streets were completely deserted when we left the school where we had gathered to get our instructions. For the next four hours, we combed an area of about one square mile, looking for people who were sleeping rough in plain sight. Two police officers—tasked with keeping us safe that night—followed us from a distance.
After a fruitless search, we were on our way back to the school when we met four homeless men who had gone outside to smoke on the stoop of a shelter. We briefly spoke to them and they explained that the homeless didn’t sleep on the streets in that particular part of Brooklyn. After all, there were plenty of shelters and vacant houses were one could rest during cold winter nights, so no need to sleep on a park bench or on the sidewalk.
The experience exposed one of the most glaring flaws in the survey: it fails to include homeless people sleeping in non-visible locations, which, according to Coalition of the Homeless, could make up as much as 40 percent of the unsheltered homeless population. That night, a mere 350 unsheltered homeless were counted by volunteers in the whole of Brooklyn, likely a low number in a borough that is home to more than 2.5 million people. Granted, New York City—although it has the largest sheltered homeless population in the country—has relatively low numbers of unsheltered homeless individuals. However, they aren’t that low and, according to Coalition of the Homeless, the PIT data on unsheltered homeless is an educated guestimate at best.
Although PIT counts fall short of painting an accurate picture of overall homelessness, they can serve another important function. They give volunteers who survey areas with large numbers of unsheltered homeless the opportunity to get closer to individuals experiencing homelessness, both in physical, as well as emotional, proximity.For a brief moment, the person collecting data is exposed to the same conditions as the homeless and might understand their daily hardships a little bit better.
That was the case with two contributors to this issue when they took part in the 2013 PIT count. June Gin surveyed Los Angeles’s skid row, which has the country’s largest concentration of unsheltered homeless. Marc Settembrino surveyed a food bank in Osceola County, Florida, a county characterized by widespread family homelessness. Both described their experiences as eye-opening and humbling and that participation has informed their research since.
In their articles, Settembrino, Gin, and the Natural Hazards Center’s Jamie Vickery, assess homelessness in the context of disaster planning and response. Written from perspectives that include those of homeless individuals and of homeless service providers, all three describe situations that demonstrate the amount of work left to be done in this field. Their articles analyze what has been done so far to include homeless populations in disaster planning, identify existing challenges and gaps, and formulate recommendations for the future to make life safer for society’s most exposed and vulnerable members.
The remainder of the issue marks the fifth anniversary of the Canterbury earthquakes in New Zealand. Julia Becker and David Johnston of the New Zealand research institute GNS Science evaluate the response of social science research in the disaster’s aftermath and how research collaborations can save time and minimize disruptions in the community after large-scale events. A second article, which I wrote in collaboration with Jane Morgan, examines the role of art in community building in Christchurch.
As my first year as Observer editor is coming to a close, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for all the enthusiastic and encouraging feedback and support we’ve received in the past twelve months. Many changes have been realized, yet many more improvements are yet to come.
Last but not least, on behalf of the Natural Hazards Center, I would like to wish you a wonderful holiday season and a very happy New Year.
I hope you’ll enjoy this Observer.
Elke Weesjes, Editor