Tracking down the homeless

Tracking down the homeless

Once every year, for the last six years, the Thomas Jefferson Coalition Against the Homeless (TJACH) has undertaken a three-day census of the area’s least fortunate, to find out things like how long it’s been since they last had a place to live, or whether they’ve ever felt like they needed mental health services.

“HUD gives us a 10-day window to collect information,” says Jeffrey Cornelius, TJACH’s lone employee and the one heading up this year’s survey. Last year’s polled 266 homeless and revealed that most originate from this area and many actually have some sort of job.

Jeffrey Cornelius, tasked with surveying the homeless, polls those in line for free lunch at the Holy Comforter Catholic Church.

This year, Cornelius has trawled around town and out in the woods, but says he had no luck outdoors. All he found were abandoned campsites. “I’ve been going to places I’m going to find people,” he says.

At noon on the last day of the census, Cornelius stands outside the Holy Comforter Soup Kitchen where a long line of those seeking free grub wait to get inside. “I’m doing a homeless census,” he says out loud. “Anybody that hasn’t filled out a form that would like to?”

“What’s it for?” asks a woman with braided hair (like the man’s next to her). Cornelius explains what he’s looking for. “Where do these people come from?” he asks, then supplies his own answer. “From here. Why aren’t these people working? They are. Where do they stay? A lot of them stay in shelters, a lot of them don’t.”

The man leans in. “Why ya’ll don’t provide jobs for people so they wouldn’t be homeless?” he demands. “That would answer most of your questions.”

“Yep,” Cornelius replies as the man persists. “See, you don’t get to the real part of it. You ask why these people stay in the shelters. Why are they homeless? Can you provide jobs for these people? That’s the whole key to it.”

Thirty minutes earlier, he had purchased a McDonald’s gift card for a homeless woman who helped him distribute the census. Now, she is waiting in line to get into the soup kitchen. Cornelius asks if she got any completed surveys.

“I got a couple of ’em,” she answers, explaining that she had some filled out at the library and also at the PACEM women’s shelter. Come by the office, he tells her, “and I’ll gather up the forms you’ve collected and we’ll talk about what happens next.”

“All right,” she mumbles. “You don’t have any jobs or anything?”

“Nope, not yet,” Cornelius replies.

“Even cleaning the trash cans,” she says, laughing quietly. “I just want to get myself out of this.”

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