It has been more than seven years since Tequia Green lived on the streets of Brooklyn. But Monday night, she traded her warm bed for a wet bench, planning to impersonate the homeless young she once was.
“ I want to help out, because, you never know when it can be your turn to be homeless,” she said.
The city organized its annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimates (or HOPE) last week, and asked more than 3,000 volunteers to walk through the streets of New York from 12 p.m to 4 a.m to count the number of homeless people in the streets. The Department of Homeless Services has implemented the survey since 2005.
More than 3,262 people lived in the streets and the subways in 2012. It is a 26 percent decrease compared to 2005. Nearly 400 of them were in Brooklyn. Those sleeping in the subways were counted in a separate section and represented nearly half of the homeless people.
Green was not a regular volunteer, though. She was a part of the “shadow team”, a group of decoys that had to make sure that the volunteers correctly surveyed the people that actually lived on the streets.
The volunteers had to interview everyone, regardless of the way they looked, and followed a strict methodology. They could not divert from the map that was randomly drawn for them, nor interview people that were not on their planned route.
Green would wait in a spot where she knew the volunteers had to cross, wait to see if they stopped by and filled in their questionnaires. The goal was not to reprimand them, but to use the number of errors to adjust the estimate.
Like the 19 other decoys that gathered at Grace Church Brooklyn Heights early in the night, she listened closely to the instructions.
“I know it is cold outside, and the weather is bad, but it is really important to stay on the street with your partner all night,” Laura McElherne, one of the leaders of the decoys, said.
Green, 29, was already standing at the corner of Tillary Street and Cadman Plaza East in Brooklyn in a warm coat, waiting for the volunteers to arrive. She lost her mother when she was 15. Her sister became her legal guardian. But when Green turned 17, she kicked her out of the house.
“I was not getting along with my family because I was a part of the lesbian and gay community,” she said.
For more than six years, she went from shelters to housing programs. She said she found her way around the social system to find somewhere to sleep for the night. But her living conditions were extremely hard. “They place you all together like animals, like a bunch of crabs in a barrel,” she said. “Everybody is fighting for an opportunity.”
Green said she had to fight many times to survive. “I have been scratched, hit, and punched. Even one time, I got into an altercation with a woman who threw bleach in my eye,” she said.
Thanks to a city program, she just has to dedicate 30 percent of her income to her rent and has managed to live in the same one-bedroom apartment in Flatbush for the last eight years.
Not even 30 minutes after Green arrived at her spot, two women and a man with survey papers in their hands approached her. “Are you also a decoy?” the man in an orange coat asked.
Green’s team partner had been standing several feet before her and had revealed her real identity after they asked their questions. But Green did not answer right away. She wanted the survey to succeed and was waiting for the volunteers to ask the right questions
A little embarrassed, the man quickly checked his questionnaire.
“Tonight, do you have some place that you consider your home or a place where you live?” he asked.
Green proudly said yes. She gave them their certification paper and walked down the road to reach her apartment.