Donovan and Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who have formed a partnership combating veterans’ homelessness, hit the streets of Washington along with 180 other warmly dressed volunteers to conduct the annual point-in-time count, part of a nationwide survey coordinated by HUD.
After Donovan’s security detail blared a siren and yelled at a taxi driver who dared to try to turn onto Eighth Street SE as the entourage walked down Barracks Row, the HUD secretary issued orders for the SUV to follow at a greater distance.
“I thought the siren wouldn’t help to establish that level of trust that you need to talk to the homeless,” said Donovan, 47, who started working with the homeless back when he was a college student. Shinseki, 70, a Vietnam veteran himself, said he’s become a student of his younger colleague.
Despite the hoopla surrounding their participation, the Cabinet secretaries said walking the streets with volunteers is the best way for them to gauge their progress.
“I tell my staff, you can’t sit in Washington with a thousand-mile-long screwdriver and try to fine-tune everything,” Shinseki said. “I’m at the other end of the screwdriver now. This is where problems get solved.”
Some 430 local counts were conducted in more than 3,000 cities and counties around the country during the last 10 days of January. By using similar methodology each year, the numbers collected, while imperfect, provide an important baseline.
The teams had little problem finding the homeless Thursday night. After a brief training session with the secretaries and other volunteers at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, Donovan’s team headed out at 10 p.m. and found two homeless men just outside the office entrance huddled under blankets. The temperature was 33 degrees.
Donovan asked about their homelessness history, medical conditions and employment status, scribbling the answers on a survey form attached to a clipboard.
The two men, Willie Watson and Brian Robinson, said they did not mind the personal questions. “It will make things better for us,” said Robinson, 54, who said he has been homeless for about five years.
The Krispy Kreme doughnuts, cartons of Starbucks coffee and $5 McDonald’s gift cards carried by volunteers also encouraged participation.
Donovan’s group also found three men under the awning of a medical clinic off Constitution Avenue, including Michael Williams, 54, who was wearing a green fatigue jacket and identified himself as a former Marine. He had been homeless for years, he said.
“We’ve got some Krispy Kreme doughnuts that will hit the spot, and some hot coffee,” VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould said.