How many people spend each night in a New York City homeless shelter? It seems like a simple question, but getting the answer is pretty complicated. So this year, City Limits will provide a daily total using the most complete information available. 

Adi Talwar

A rally in June 2021, calling for the city to create more permanent housing for homeless New Yorkers.

How many people spend each night in a New York City homeless shelter? It seems like a simple question, but getting the answer is pretty complicated.

A census published most days by the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) stands in as the easy-to-obtain figure typically cited by policymakers and journalists. That tally has hovered around 45,000 people for the past few months, but it’s far from a complete picture.

New York City has five municipal shelter systems run by four different agencies, and most of them have no obligation to publish a daily census. When they do report, it can get confusing—deliberately so, advocates say.

A City Council bill that would have forced the city to report an aggregate monthly number stalled in committee last year, and its term-limited sponsor is now out of office. A local law enacted in 2011 compels the various agencies to report their monthly figures so that the city can “accurately determine the extent of the need for temporary emergency housing and associated services in the city,” according to its text.

But a decade later, reporting time lags (the most recently available data is from November 2021), and the numbers are presented in a hard-to-read pdf document that is replaced each month on the city’s website.

So this year, City Limits will provide a daily total using the most complete information available.

This project will evolve as more up-to-date data becomes accessible through various legally-mandated censuses, specific press inquiries and Freedom of Information Law requests. But for now, we will present four charts:

  • The total number of people staying in shelters as reported by DHS
  • The number of families with children staying in DHS shelters 
  • That total broken down into DHS shelter categories
  • The number of unique individuals served by the city’s various shelter systems each month

We will update the charts every day.

DHS runs by far the largest of New York City’s municipal shelter systems and is legally mandated to publish a daily census. The agency posts daily totals on the city’s Open Data site for three types of shelters that make up the bulk of the population: single adult, families with children and adult families.

DHS also posts a more detailed tally as a pdf on its website. That document features additional data points and gets replaced most days. Sometimes, the agency does not post the more extensive information (for example, the agency did not post a new total for the days between Dec. 29, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 or for the days between Jan. 5 to Jan. 9)

On Dec. 29, 2021, the last published report of the year, there were 45,299 people in shelters for single adults, families with children and adult families. But that wasn’t the full total.

A separate box on the report listed about 1,500 other people who do not fit into the three main categories. That Dec. 29, 2021 census showed 1,171 people in “SafeHavens”—special shelters with fewer restrictions for New Yorkers who were previously bedding down in public spaces—along with 173 New Yorkers in veterans shelters, 137 in overnight drop-in centers, 85 in transitional housing for people leaving jails and prisons and 18 in “faith beds.”

Add it to the initial total, and that’s 46,798 people. But wait, there’s more: Another group—New Yorkers staying in so-called “stabilization” beds for people coming in off the streets—is excluded altogether. DHS has not shared the total number of people staying in its stabilization beds.

The DHS count is just a partial view of the city’s homelessness crisis. The data published each day leaves out many other people staying in shelters overseen by three other city agencies.

There are thousands of survivors of domestic violence staying in shelters overseen by the Human Resources Administration (HRA), while another system provides shelter beds for hundreds of people with HIV/AIDS. Those emergency shelters and transitional housing units are under the auspices of HRA’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA). HRA did not provide information about the most recent number of people staying in domestic violence or HASA residences.

The city’s Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) contracts with nonprofits to provide more than 750 shelter beds for young people, known as runaway homeless youth, or RHY. There were 576 people in the RHY shelters on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, DYCD said.

And then there are emergency shelters overseen by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) for people who lost housing because of a disaster, like a flood or fire, or because their home was condemned by the city. In response to questions Monday, HPD pointed to the number of people who stayed in its shelters in November 2021.

Under a 2011 city rule known as Local Law 37, HRA, DYCD and HPD are required to report the number of unique— or “unduplicated”—individuals who stayed in their shelters each month.

A total of 60,555 individuals stayed in those various shelter systems, according to a review of the Local Law report.

So why exactly is it so hard to get straight-forward data? In short: Politics.

Past mayors did not have to report the total number of people staying in the city’s various shelter systems. So, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration reasoned, why should they have to disclose more details, inflate the total and make their homelessness response look worse by comparison?

Former DHS Commissioner Steve Banks explained that rationale at a 2021 City Council budget hearing when asked why his agency excluded stabilization beds from its daily census reports.

“I think it’s important to consider apples to apples,” Banks said. “We have been measured historically by the Department of Homeless Services Shelter System. It does not include the stabilization beds…if one wanted to do so, you would have to go back over time and adjust all the censuses of every other administration that’s done this.”

“We tend to focus as every administration has on the number of people that are in actually the Department of Homeless Services shelters,” he added.

But that administration is over. There is a new team in town, and Mayor Eric Adams could still decide to publish a more holistic view of the city’s homeless crisis.

Will he? The mayor’s office has not yet responded to requests for comment.

This project, and City Limits' expanded coverage of the NYC homelessness crisis, is supported by Trinity Church Wall Street. City Limits is solely responsible for the content and editorial direction.