“I could not imagine myself being 18 or 19 with completely nothing but the clothes on my back."

--Leticia Aguilar
HOPE Case Manager

Surveying the Streets—The HOPE team at work

Brisk temperatures and windy nights have never stopped the HOPE team from surveying the streets in January for the unsheltered homeless. This is the third year ACH’s street outreach program, HOPE (Homeless Outreach Project Experience), participated in the 2019 Homeless Count led by the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition last week.

“It’s enlightening and makes you appreciate everything that you have when you see somebody out in the streets and they have nothing,” said Shelby Boone, HOPE Case Manager.

Several HOPE team members were joined by volunteers and a record-setting amount of more than 400 people assisted on “count night.” HOPE also participated in surveying homeless youth (anyone 24 years and younger) two days beforehand.

“I could not imagine myself being 18 or 19 with completely nothing but the clothes on my back, having to go through life already with that kind of battle,” Leticia Aguilar shares. As a HOPE Case Manager, she sees the homeless count as a way for volunteers and organizations to learn about the homeless community.

ACH is one of many community organizations that help the coalition survey and count the homeless in Parker and Tarrant county—but HOPE is the only program that specializes in helping homeless youth.

How “Count Night” Works

Before anyone could go out and start counting, everyone was required to participate in a training by the coalition, which included information about the initiative, safety instructions, and advice when conducting surveys.

Members from JPS Care Connections, MHMR iOS, and ACH’s very own Jenny Terry were there to speak to participants about what to do if they encounter someone homeless with a medical or substance abuse issue or a youth under the age of 18.

Hundreds of people were divided into small groups and were assigned routes. They brought along hygiene kits and other basic care items to offer the homeless when counting. And many groups were accompanied by a teammate experienced in homeless outreach.

Fort Worth police officers were also placed with each group for safety. They were a helping hand in navigating through their districts as they were familiar with tent cities, camp sites, local convenience stores and other areas where the homeless community are prevalent.

“…you appreciate everything that you have when you see somebody out in the streets and they have nothing.”

--Shelby Boone
HOPE Case Manager

Groups downloaded a survey app which supplied questions to be asked of the homeless they encountered. Some questions include why and how they got there and if they had a place to stay the night before. Other questions are more personal and are asked to determine program eligibility.

The results of the count help bring to light factors that will determine the amount of federal funds awarded to the community. They also help the coalition and organizations understand the needs of the homeless population and what steps to take next.

The Common Thread Between Homelessness and Human Trafficking

The nationwide initiative known as “count night” is conducted annually during the last 10 days of January.

January also happens to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month. Human trafficking is an epidemic that occurs right here at home and is strongly connected to homelessness. Homeless youth are often targeted, and studies show at least 1 in 5 will be trafficked in the United States.

This is an issue that the HOPE team frequently encounters. They’ve observed over the years that with the homeless youth they meet, boys are often labor trafficked and many of the girls are sex trafficked.

As trained professionals, the HOPE team clearly sees the warning signs of trafficking. But they say it takes time and trust for their clients to see the problem before they take advantage of any resources offered.

Cultivating Trust with the HOPE Team

HOPE Case Manager Wallace Bridges recalls a young girl he recently met on the streets of Fort Worth, “We think that she’s being trafficked, but we wanted to build trust.” Shelby and Wallace agree that building trust is key to getting youth help.

On count night, volunteers offer hygiene kits, water, snacks and other necessities to those they count and survey for the coalition. That’s a common practice for HOPE. But according to Wallace, so is making that basic connection as human beings in order to cultivate trust.

Wallace believes that progress is possible from building a rapport first—that was the case with the young girl they suspected was involved in trafficking.

“Eventually, she felt safe enough to give us her mother’s phone number,” he said. “It was a relief to her mom that she had some kind of connection through somebody else.”

HOPE team members say developing trust can be tricky. On one hand, their job is to offer services and resources. On the other, pushing too much help on a client could drive them away.

But at the end of the day, Wallace says it comes down to making sure the youth understand HOPE is there as a source of judgement-free support and will consistently work to keep them safe.

“…It was a relief to her mom that she had some kind of connection through somebody else.”

--Wallace Bridges
HOPE Case Manager