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What you need to know about NYC’s upcoming street homeless count

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In the early morning of Jan. 24, homeless outreach workers and volunteers will fan out across the city and into the subway system to count the number of New Yorkers who call the streets and subways home.

The citywide count has happened every year since 2005 and helps the city tailor its response on how to address the needs of its poorest residents. But it’s not without controversy and pushback from homeless advocates, who say the method the city uses has its limitations and produces an unreliable estimate. This year’s survey promises to be different in part because volunteers will rejoin outreach workers after being barred from taking part in 2021 and 2022 due to pandemic restrictions.

From midnight to 4 a.m., outreach workers and volunteers will head to designated areas throughout the five boroughs to approach individuals on the street and in the subway, ask where those individuals are sleeping that night, and record their responses.

The number of homeless people living on the city’s streets, in the subways and in other public places is just a small fraction of the city’s overall homeless population. In 2022, the city estimated that 3,439 homeless people were residing in public spaces.

As of Jan. 8, there were 67,880 homeless children and adults living in shelters managed by the city’s Department of Homeless Services and thousands more living in shelters managed by other city agencies.

This year, the city is facing a record number of homeless people living in shelters. Since the spring, busloads of migrants seeking asylum began showing up in New York City, overwhelming the already overburdened shelter system.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of the count at the end of the month.

What is the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate survey?

Started in 2005, the HOPE survey — also known as the HOPE count— is an annual survey of the street homeless population in New York City. It is not a literal count of every homeless person living on city streets, in the subways and other public spaces. It’s a point-in-time sampling of homeless people living in certain neighborhoods and certain streets in the five boroughs.

How does it work?

The city sends outreach workers and volunteers to neighborhoods where homeless people are known to live, as well as random areas, said Edith Kealey, the executive research director at Department of Social Services’ Office of Evaluation and Research, the city agency that manages the operation. They also go into subway stations and end-of-the line stations to talk to every person who remains in the subway cars.

“We are both capturing people who are in the station as well as people who are potentially sleeping on the train,” she said.

The city Department of Homeless Services then takes the raw count and applies a formula and makes adjustments to come up with an estimate of the street homeless population for that single night in January. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that the point-in-time estimates are conducted during the last 10 days of January and compile the findings into a yearly report for Congress, which came out last month.

Why is the count done?

Essentially, it’s so the city can make its case to the federal government for funding.

The tally is required by HUD for the city to obtain federal money to help pay for homeless services and to help city officials decide where to allocate resources to assist the city’s poorest residents.

When will we see the estimate?

The city typically releases the estimate in the spring or summer.

Last year the survey was conducted on Jan. 25 and the results were released in June. The city estimated there were 3,439 homeless people sleeping on the streets and in public spaces, a number closer to pre-pandemic levels.

In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, the city estimated there were 2,376 homeless people living in public spaces. The street homeless population was lower that year, advocates said, because the city had rented hotels during the COVID-19 crisis as emergency housing was utilized to slow the spread of the virus. Advocates said some homeless people who previously rejected the city’s offer to put them in congregate shelters accepted hotel rooms instead.

Nationally, a modest increase of .3% in the number of people who were street homeless last January compared to 2020 shows that rental assistance policies and other pandemic-spurred incentives successfully kept people in their homes during the crisis, the Biden administration said last month.

Is there pushback over the count?

Homeless advocates have long criticized the HOPE survey as a vast undercount of the city’s street homeless population, and say the estimate produces a distorted portrait of street homelessness and masks the real scale of the crisis.

The city relies on a flawed method, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group. For example, homeless people who sleep in bank vestibules or in fast-food restaurants that are open 24 hours are not counted because canvassers are not allowed to go on private property.

“So, we know that there are many people who are homeless who are not being counted as part of this survey because of those methodological limitations,” said Jacquelyn Simone, director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Homeless people who live in public spaces try to blend in to avoid detection as a survival technique, Simone added. And getting an accurate estimate is even harder, she said, in an era when Mayor Eric Adams is using the NYPD to remove homeless people from the subways and has made breaking up homeless encampments a priority for his administration.

“Many people have been pushed from the more visible areas to less visible areas, and they have been trying to hide and avoid detection so that can actually make the work of the HOPE volunteers harder because people are intentionally trying to avoid interacting with any kind of public officials,” Simone said.

Then, there is the weather.

When it’s bitterly cold — as it usually is in January — some homeless individuals may sleep in a city shelter for the night or head indoors, where volunteers aren’t able to count them.

Kealey defended the DSS’ methods, saying the survey produces a “robust” response and the results allow the city to look at shifts and trends of the street homeless population over time.

“That is just one number that gives one particular insight into the challenge of homelessness in the city,” said Kealey. “We all acknowledge that’s not the whole story.”

The city estimates that more than half of homeless people find shelter in the subway system, Kealey said. While some homeless individuals sleep in bank vestibules, she said they make up a small percentage of the street homeless population.

“At the margins that I think would not be likely to really shift our estimates substantially,” Kealey said.

Is there a better way to count the street homeless population?

Some advocates say a better way to get an estimate is to go directly to homeless service providers and have them log information over a period of time, than on a single night.

For instance, the city could survey the number of homeless people who use drop-in centers, places where homeless individuals can go to get hot meals, take a shower or sleep for the night.

According to the Urban Justice Center, a legal services and advocacy organization, the city could use homeless service providers to help inform a more accurate count.

The city pays outreach providers to help bring homeless individuals living on the streets into shelters, and providers report the number of contacts they make with homeless people living in public spaces to DHS. Advocates say the city could ask providers to report the number of individuals they assisted.

But that’s easier said than done

Craig Hughes, a senior social worker at the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center, said it’s not in the city’s interest to use a different method to get a more reliable number of people living in public spaces because that would likely mean a higher number.

“When the city puts HOPE numbers out, it’s really a political project,” said Hughes. “It’s about presenting an image of homelessness that isn’t realistically representative of the number of people living on the street and tends to be used by each administration as a way to sort of emphasize that their approach to homelessness is working in one way or another.”

Kealey defended the city’s method, noting that no other major city uses the service-based model to count the street homeless population.

“I’m not convinced that a service-based approach would yield better numbers than the ones that we get through our existing approach, which, as we said, is endorsed by HUD as a national model,” she said.

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