Counting Street Homeless: Volunteer Night Is Flawed

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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 volunteered with the HOPE count this year for the first time, and wanted to share my experience in light of the decline in street homelessness reported by the Department of Homeless Services. I have no background in public policy, and I can only report on my personal experiences as a volunteer, but I do feel that several aspects of the survey were very telling about the city’s approach to homelessness, and cast some doubt on the accuracy of the results.

My conclusion from the experience is that HOPE is, basically, a very effective – and perhaps deceptive – public relations tool, but probably not a very good survey tool. I was amazed at the number of people who turned out to wander the cold streets in the middle of the night. And I realize that they do it because they are made to feel like they are making a difference. As surveyors, we were encouraged to offer services to whomever we questioned. We were assured that anyone who was interested would be taken to a bed that very night.

I was even lured into feeling like we “made a difference” by getting one gentleman into detox that night. Another person we surveyed, who was not homeless, congratulated us for being such good people, volunteering for this effort. This is the impression that most volunteers leave with. Since volunteering, however, my skepticism about the HOPE count has been sharpened through my everyday work experience as a public defender. In the few weeks since volunteering, I’ve received two calls from clients asking for help because they had been rejected by DHS for a family shelter placement because the agency believed they could live with relatives – who, in reality, did not have room for them. As volunteers that night, we were not told of this common hurdle to family shelter placement when we were admonished to act with the utmost urgency if we encountered anyone sleeping on the street with children. We were given the impression that they would be taken care of, no questions asked.

Finally, the survey flaw that stood out most for me was the presence of police escorts for some of the survey groups; they accompanied maybe one-third of the groups in our district. Being a public defender, I could not believe it when they told me that two uniformed members of the NYPD would be accompanying our survey group in their marked police car. What I found even more incredible was that nobody running the survey seemed to realize that some homeless individuals have had bad experiences with the police, and would have reason to distrust anyone in police company. As expected, the presence of a police car near our group did have an effect on our survey results: There were several people who refused to speak with us who may well have been homeless.

The hazard built into the HOPE count is that thousands of volunteers each year are made to feel satisfied that they have done their part, when they could have a greater impact advocating for change in how the city treats its poorest residents, or even working one night a week in a local soup kitchen. The even greater danger of the HOPE count is that it allows the administration to congratulate itself for taking the problem of homelessness seriously, without concern for whether it does anything substantial – like developing more housing truly affordable to the neediest – to decrease homelessness in the long term.

Laurie Dick is a lawyer in The Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense division. The opinions expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the Society.

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