Counting the homeless
Volunteers take to the streets to find out how many New Yorkers are without shelter. But how effective is the survey?
Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks and Manhattan Outreach Consortium Director Mario Arias engage a woman living on the street. Photo courtesy of the Department of Homeless Services
Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks, New York City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Herminia Palacio at a HOPE volunteer training. Photo courtesy of The Department of Homeless Services
By Madeleine Thompson
Despite the saying, New York City does sleep each night. But some residents, for reasons of poverty or mental illness, do so in subway stations or park benches because they lack a home to return to. On a cloudy Feb. 7 evening, thousands of volunteers — the exact number wasn’t available, but 2016 set a record with 3,800 — spread throughout the city to find out exactly how many New Yorkers were without shelter that night. This year marked the 12th annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) count, a study mandated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to measure the number of the homeless.
In the cafeteria of P.S. 199 on West 61st Street, long after students had gone home, roughly 90 people chatted amiably while awaiting further instruction. The city’s Department of Homeless Services had requested that volunteers for the HOPE count arrive around 10 p.m. on Monday night, though the training portion didn’t begin until 11 p.m. A table with donuts, coffee and granola bars sat in the corner, as did a group of NYPD officers who would later accompany volunteer teams whose survey areas included subway stations and parks. The volunteers were remarkably energetic in the face of a night spent walking around in the cold. By a show of hands, about a third of the crowd at P.S. 199 had participated in HOPE before. The rest, including myself, were first-timers.
When 11 p.m. finally rolled around, district leader Martha Kenton guided the volunteers through the rules. Teams were to tackle three geographical areas near each other, and fill out a one-page form for every person they came across. If someone identified themselves as homeless, there were eight questions about age, veteran status, and location. Volunteers were then supposed to ask the person if they would like to be taken to a shelter, though we were reminded that they had every right to stay where they were. For non-homeless people, the only question after “Do you have a place to go tonight?” was, “Has anyone already asked you these questions?”
We left for our survey areas before the 12:15 a.m. start time. My team leader, Mike, a financial analyst who participated in last year’s HOPE count, brought a car which we gratefully piled into for the journey up to Morningside Park. Other teams took the subway or walked to their locations. Our group — which included Mike’s brother Dave, visiting from St. Louis, and Sonia, a holistic healthcare provider from Hell’s Kitchen — found a decent parking spot and walked to the starting point.
A little over two hours later, after canvassing a segment of Morningside Heights and one slightly north in Harlem in addition to the park, my team of four returned to P.S. 199 having encountered zero homeless people. We ran into a total of 13 people on the sidewalks of our routes, but they were all either on their way home or out walking their dogs. “Do I look homeless?” a woman asked worriedly at West 110th and Morningside Drive.
The last people we surveyed, at about 2:15 a.m., were congregating outside El Puerto Seafood on 125th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Old Broadway. After Mike introduced himself and described what we were doing there, one man took offense. “Just because we don’t live in a condo, you think we’re homeless?” he said. There was a moment of tension as Mike explained that we were required to stop everyone we saw, and the man said he was just giving Mike a hard time. They exchanged a fist bump, and we continued on after determining that everyone had a place they called home. “Go over to East Harlem,” one man suggested, though it was out of our range. “There’s people everywhere over there.”
Back at P.S. 199 at 2:30 a.m., a closing bit of paperwork awaited every team. A homeless services employee instructed us to file each sheet in a corresponding envelope — we only used the “non-homeless” one — and then gave us feedback forms to fill out. Sonia left comments about the maps being confusing to follow, and Mike listed his favorite part of the experience as meeting new people.
The effectiveness of the HOPE count is somewhat up for debate. Shelter program manager Delon Ali last year criticized the survey for being limited to visibly homeless people staying on the streets. “There’s people who live in abandoned buildings and on rooftops, who actually hide from society so they may have a place to stay,” Ali told CBS News last April. Craig Hughes, a policy analyst with the Coalition for Homeless Youth, wrote on the CityLimits news site last month that “though seen as a ‘gold standard’ by [the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HOPE] produces systematic undercounts.”
Hughes suggested that the city follow its one-night HOPE count with surveys over several more days to gather more details about street homeless populations, especially homeless youth. The number of New Yorkers sleeping in shelters each night has risen steadily over the past few years and now tops out at over 60,000, including 15,000 families.
I wasn’t sure if I’d accomplished much of anything. The “frequently asked questions” section of the HOPE website assures me, however, that I was “vital” to the project: “Sometimes our volunteers see a high number of people, and other times no one at all. High density areas, which we expect have a relatively higher number of homeless people, and low density areas, which are expected to have few or none, help to give us the most accurate representation of New York City,” it reads. The results of last year’s survey were made available in late April.
As Mike graciously drove us all home, Sonia offered that it was perhaps a good sign that we hadn’t seen any homeless people along our routes. Mike was more skeptical, guessing that there may be more of a homeless presence in places like Times Square, where people are “probably more sympathetic to panhandlers than Upper West Siders.” At the very least, according to my smartphone pedometer, we knocked out slightly more than six miles before going to bed.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at email@example.com
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