Counting Street Homeless: 'Hope' Is The Gold Standard

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New York City’s fourth annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) count, sponsored by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) was conducted Jan. 28, with 1,700 volunteers searching the boroughs for homeless people out in the cold. The survey is intended to gauge the number of the street homeless – and to offer services to those encountered. The results are in, and DHS says street homelessness is down 12 percent from last year – and that NYC has far fewer homeless people than other cities using similar counting methodology. But since HOPE debuted in New York in 2005, it’s garnered many criticisms from advocates as well as accolades from various authorities. Here are two views born of this year’s experience.

I read with sadness the views of the HOPE 2008 volunteer who felt she was lured into feeling like she “made a difference” in the effort to end street homelessness in New York City by simply participating that night. I always have believed the commitment of the city and its volunteers during the night of the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate provides actual hope for those living unsheltered. HOPE is a way for the city to hold itself accountable to the most vulnerable people living on our streets, while also providing what could be the “magic moment” that gets an individual to come into shelter or detox and allows real change to take place.

Sometimes in life, it can be a stranger asking a simple question that can lead someone to make a potentially lifesaving decision. The man who decided to enter detox because of the commitment of a group of HOPE volunteers – who simply asked if the man wanted help – is a giant leap, if not a miraculous moment. If it took the full force of DHS’ 1,700 volunteers that night to save just one life, it was worth doing.

Since 2005, the unsheltered homeless population has dropped by 25 percent. This is good news and we are headed in the right direction. But HOPE also has shown us areas where homelessness is up. This helps guide us as we drive policy change. If you don’t measure it, you can’t change it. And HOPE has helped us to change policies that are directly impacting the lives of street homeless individuals on a daily basis.

New York City’s methodology for counting homeless people is recognized by the federal government as the gold standard for conducting such a count. Yet we also conduct a “shadow count,” which is a quality assurance measure that goes beyond what the federal government requires. Decoys throughout the city pose as unsheltered homeless people to ensure that volunteers survey everyone they see. The same methodology is used every year, providing a consistent measuring stick that allows us to track our progress with reliability and validity.

The HOPE count is conducted only through the generosity of our volunteers; as such our primary concern is their safety. The NYPD has been a terrific partner during the HOPE counts. Police officers are there to accompany groups that survey isolated parts of the city. Most volunteers experience their presence as supportive, and many repeat volunteers request their assistance.

In one night, we certainly cannot convey to every volunteer the complexities of city homeless policies regarding single adults, families and individuals. But HOPE does provide a tiny glimpse into the lives of those who live on our streets and in our subways. Nothing deceptive is shared with volunteers during their training. In addition to conducting the survey, we also ask volunteers to offer shelter to everyone they encounter who has no place to stay that night, and anyone who accepts is transported to a bed. It’s also notable that not one family with children was found during the HOPE count.

I strongly feel that the thousands of HOPE volunteers over the years should feel satisfied that they played a part in helping to end homelessness in New York City, and in making the city accountable. The real danger is in misguided people criticizing a worthwhile effort that could keep potential volunteers away. So I offer thanks to all volunteers who came out that night, and encourage others to volunteer next year. We need you, and so do your fellow New Yorkers.

Dr. Maryanne Schretzman is deputy commissioner for policy and planning at the Department of Homeless Services.

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