Street Homeless Numbers Jump

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The annual snapshot of the city’s homeless street people shows a dramatic jump in the number since last year.

Newly released survey results from the Department of Homeless Services’ annual one-night sweep show 3,111 people living on the streets of New York, a figure 25 percent higher than last year. The DHS count called Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) found 783 more people living in the streets compared to last year. But the HOPE initiative paints only a small piece of the city’s homeless picture.

The HOPE number reflects only street people. This week DHS reported 36,810 homeless in shelters, while the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless estimated that 39,256 homeless – including families – were living in the city’s network of shelters at the end of January. Many also find temporary housing operated by church groups and charitable organizations.

For Owen Rogers, the member who recently led a memorial service for people buried at Potter’s Field on Hart Island, the spike in this year’s mid-winter count of street people comes as no surprise. Homeless street dwellers are most of the bodies buried at Hart Island, sometimes after dying from exposure, he said.

“It’s not news to me, the fact that thousands of people are sleeping in the parks and on the subways. The numbers have been going up steadily for years,” he said. “These results simply call attention to the mayor’s statistical methods.” Rogers alleges that the Bloomberg administration fudges street count numbers, comparable to the way critics suspect manipulation of student achievement data. DHS denies this.

If city officials want to help homeless street people, Rogers said, they should put more energy and money into establishing permanent homes – not just the overcrowded shelters that many homeless people consider unsafe. “We have these silly vacant condos on the same block where homeless people are sitting on the street. The city needs to address that,” he said. He’d like to see vacant housing turned into permanent affordable housing for homeless people – not shelters or transitional housing, but permanent apartments where people pay an affordable rent.

In order to qualify for funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, DHS began its street survey in 2005. The 2010 count shows 1,284 fewer homeless living on the street than that first year – a decrease of 29 percent, according to statement released by DHS.

Homeless Services Commissioner Robert Hess said the spike is a sign that more services are needed to help street homeless in particular. “Through the information gathered from the HOPE survey and a comprehensive needs assessment of the City’s street homeless population, DHS will enhance the work we have already done to place these clients into safe, stable housing,” he said in a statement.

The HOPE count has been criticized since its inception in 2005 for conducting the survey on bitterly cold nights when even people who ordinarily sleep on the street might seek indoor shelter. Another major criticism stems from the strictness of procedures for counting people. Volunteers who travel the city in search of the homeless abide by many restrictions: no venturing into alleys, no looking on subway trains, no climbing into vestibules or stairwells. Because counters aren’t allowed to look in those forbidden places, some number of homeless are not accounted for.

Coalition for the Homeless and other critics of the methodology have said that the survey is a severe under-count, and that it is useless as a tool for accurately measuring the homeless population and its true needs.

One reason for the increased numbers this year could be that the shelter system is over capacity, said Giselle Routhier, policy analyst for the Coalition.

“We would hope that with the rise in this population the city will reopen its largest drop-in centers,” she said, referring to the Open Door, a 24-hour homeless drop in center at the Port Authority Bus Terminal scheduled to formally close at the end of March.

“They were not concerned when overall homeless numbers went up last year. They cut services,” Routhier said. “This survey is only useful if they do something about it.”

Correction: due to an error in calculation, this story originally understated the year-over-year increase in adult street homelessness. In this version, that error has been corrected.