A Winter's Tale: What The Homeless Tally Means

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With local unemployment up, home foreclosures continuing, and dire economic indicators as far as the eye can see, the city's announcement last week that street homelessness is down 30 percent from last year was promptly met with disbelief from some quarters.

Merely an hour after the Department of Homeless Services issued its press release Wednesday, the Coalition for the Homeless issued one, too. “The numbers released by the city today defy credibility and run counter to what New Yorkers observe every day on New York’s streets,” said Coalition Executive Director Mary Brosnahan. “Looked at over a four-year period the city is arguing it has cut street homelessness in half. Do New Yorkers really think there are half as many homeless people on our streets as four years ago?”

The Coalition and other advocates for the homeless have a detailed – and at this point, predictable – critique of the annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, a one-night “point in time” count conducted by cities around the country in order to qualify for funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Critics say the methodology of the “HOPE survey” is flawed, the conclusions reached are wrongheaded, and the whole exercise serves to distract from primary goals. But DHS' confidence in the tally, buttressed by similar counts conducted nationwide, suggests the survey will be repeated.

“Through HOPE, we have found a way to more accurately measure the reality of what is happening on our streets and create practical solutions that make an impact for both our clients and our communities. We have brought services curbside, and in doing so, placed thousands of the most vulnerable New Yorkers into housing,” DHS Commissioner Robert V. Hess said in the announcement March 4, claiming an estimated 2,328 unsheltered homeless people citywide, down 30 percent from 3,306 a year ago, and 47 percent from 4,395 in 2005. The same day, the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness also jumped into the quick-response fray, issuing a statement praising New York's experience “because it reminds us that social problems can be solved when creative and determined people focus their resources on solutions.”

According to DHS press secretary Heather Janik, that focus has taken several forms. The department has gone from contracting with numerous organizations for outreach work with the street homeless, down to one per borough, and increased incentives for placing homeless people into housing (rather than for making a particular number of contacts). Outreach workers also are now specifically targeting chronically homeless individuals, because they tend to need the most help getting off the street. And instead of having only emergency shelters and drop-in centers to offer the homeless, there is now “a much broader menu of housing placement options” including more than 600 “Safe Haven” and “stabilization” beds, which have much lower barriers to entry than traditional shelter options. In the field of homeless services, this is called a “Housing First” approach (not to be confused with the city coalition by the same name that's often credited with spurring the Bloomberg administration's commitment to developing affordable housing).

According to Janik, “over 3,000 individuals, and, within that, over 1,250 chronically homeless individuals have been placed into transitional and permanent housing since the new outreach services were launched in September 2007. Additionally, the number of street homeless individuals placed into permanent housing increased by almost 50 percent comparing FY2007 to FY2008.”

But how can street homelessness be dropping when family homelessness stands at a record high? “There are different dynamics affecting street homelessness and family homelessness,” is Janik's answer. “It is not yet clear how and if the economic situation will affect street homeless levels in NYC.”

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