City-sponsored Homeless Outreach Population Estimate workers went out yesterday and this morning to count unsheltered homeless people. To make sure they were doing their jobs, some folks at Hunter College sent out “homeless decoys” — people of homefulness posing as homeless — on a “Shadow Count” to test their detection skills.
The Shadow Count is hardly adversarial; the Hunter decoys are actually financed by the Department of Homeless Services to test itself. As if to show us how well-controlled the experiment is, a New York Times reporter agrees to become a homeless decoy for a night, and writes about it in today’s edition. Will the homeless hunters take her for a bum, or ask her how to get to a Bodega?
Natasha Lennard took the how-to kit from Hunter and “swapped overcoats with a male student in an attempt to look more convincingly homeless and less like the 23-year-old journalism grad student I am.” (As the photo shows, she still looks adorable, though if she sticks with journalism she may get closer to homelessness than she ever imagined.)
Lennard doesn’t do much else to make herself look authentic — no raving, no soiling herself — but she purposefully seats herself under a sign that says “Get Noticed,” perhaps as a sporting clue to her pursuers. And as it happens, the city workers do notice her, and ask if she has a place to stay, whereupon she brightly sings out, “Olly olly oxen free!” (Not really; she says “I’m a decoy, you got me.”)
Of course, many homeless people are not nearly so quick as Lennard to identify themselves (as Gabe Pressman finds: “Through the night he works collecting the cans and bottles. [But] ‘I’m not a bum,’ he says”). But at least we know, thanks to the presence of the Fourth Estate, that everyone’s done their due diligence.