Fewer Homeless on Streets, Lots More on Subways

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A man sleeps in the Norwood D-train station in 2010. (File)

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

A man sleeps in the Norwood D-train station in 2010. (File)

The Department of Homeless Services on Wednesday announced a “2013 reduction in street homelessness” that included a “decline of 28 percent across the five boroughs since 2005.”

That was the good news.

The city’s annual survey of the homeless, a one-night census conducted in January, did show a decrease of 2.5 percent in the number of people estimated to be living in streets, parks and other public places, from 3,262 in 2012 to 3,180 this year. Since 2005, when the survey began, the number of people living in the open has fallen by 28 percent.

However, the number of people living in the subways increased substantially, from 1,634 last year to 1,841 this year—a 12 percent increase. Since 2005, that number has increased by 117 percent.

Combining the two categories—street homeless and subway homeless—the number of people living unsheltered actually rose last year, by 2.6 percent. Compared to 2005, it’s down 4 percent.

DHS acknowledged the subway numbers were “challenging” and described new efforts to reduce them. It also noted that “the ratio of street homeless individuals to the City’s population as a whole—1 in 2,662—remains one of the lowest of any major city in the country.”

Surveys are funny things: The subway numbers could be higher now because the surveys have gotten better at counting them. On the other hand, critics like the Coalition for the Homeless have long faulted the HOPE survey for as a superficial, one-shot deal.

The street-homelessness declines previously reported in the HOPE survey have been a bright spot in the Bloomberg administration’s record on homelessness. The mayor in 2004 targeted a very ambitious reduction in the far larger number of people living in shelters, but the economic crisis, a rising gap between income and rent and the collapse of a transitional housing program have resulted in the opposite: The most recent shelter census had 48,456 people—including 21,000 children—living in the city’s system on Friday, May 3. That’s 42 percent higher than the monthly average in May 2005.

Several advocacy groups have teamed up to promote a platform aimed at reducing homelessness. It calls for making homelessness reduction a mayoral priority, expanding efforts to preserve affordable housing and prevent evictions and maintaining access to shelters.

Read our investigation of the mayor’s homelessness record, here.