A morning at the Day Center contains the threads of dozens of stories, ranging from poignant to hilarious.
One of our guests, if you met him on the street, would give you no indication that he was homeless — except for the backpack and rather stylish valise in which he carries his laundry. "Alex" is calm, cheerful, well-kept and college-educated veteran — just the sort of person an employer would hire if he showed up to fill a job opening.
For example, with the U.S. Census.
The Census recruited at the shelters for canvassers. The screening test had 27 questions on things like basic math and map reading; 17 right answers were required to pass, and Alex missed only one. He was the only one out of three dozen applicants who met the standard.
He became the sort of resident advisor on how to reach the homeless. Sometimes they took his advice. For example, the plan was to descend on the Day Center and the line at the soup kitchen with 35 Census takers in red Census vests, hats and badges.
Uh, no, said Alex. You only need four or five, and keep the badges under the vests. Give me a day to let people know what's going on. Otherwise, you won't get anybody to talk to you.
That's what they did, and it worked all right.
There was also an effort to actively check places like campsites to see if anyone is living there. Alex told of Census-takers riding in on snowmobiles to mountain campsites where there was still four feet of snow. (But no campers.)
Alex was assigned to another group, headed by a recently retired army officer, that was planning to do a sweep of the river, where a fair number of homeless live. They were going to start at 5 a.m. and patrol through the woods with flashlights.
Uh, no, said Alex again. Those people have guns and dogs. How would you feel about someone coming through your bedroom with a flashlight at 5 in the morning?
The leader, who Alex said reminded him of some of the fresh second lieutenants he served with in Vietnam, thanked him for his input and said, "We're going to make the effort."
Alex said he wasn't going. So he was sent with another crew out to Rabbit Valley, an area along the river in the desert near Utah.
In the middle of nowhere, they found one camp trailer with a satellite dish set up and a few ATVs. All five Census-takers piled out of their van, with their clipboards, badges and red vests. It was 8 a.m.
Alex was given the assignment to knock on the trailer door, with the other four behind him. (If someone gets shot, why not the homeless guy?)
A woman came to the door in her bathrobe and peered out. What are you doing here? she asked in surprise.
We're from the Census. Have you been counted? asked Alex.
I'm from Palisade (the other end of the valley) and I have been counted, she said. Do you want some coffee?
Alex's crew returned without any new forms completed. The river crew also came back empty-handed.
Since Alex knew people on the river, he asked them what happened.
We heard someone coming and we hid, was the reply. We had the dogs ready to go, but they never saw us.
Meanwhile, a condominium tower at a major intersection in town was missed entirely.
I think it's time to put Alex in charge.