Since Jan. 1, City Limits has been publishing more accurate homeless shelter census figures after a Council bill to force the city to publish a true number failed last year. The total commonly cited by city officials excludes thousands of people staying in shelters run by agencies other than the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), failing to count more than 15 percent of the actual population.

Adi Talwar

An 80-bed SafeHaven shelter for street homeless New Yorkers in The Bronx. Such facilities are not counted in the city’s commonly cited shelter census numbers.

For years, policymakers, journalists and everyday New Yorkers have used a daily census published by a single municipal agency to gauge the extent of the city’s homelessness crisis. On June 16, the day of the most recent report by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), there were 46,543 people staying in adult and family shelters.

But the actual number is much higher: thousands of people staying in city shelters run by other agencies—as well as some facilities administered by DHS—go uncounted, leading to funding shortfalls and policy gaps for victims of domestic violence, young people experiencing homelessness and New Yorkers coming in off the streets, advocates say. Data compiled by City Limits shows that more than 15 percent of the shelter population is excluded from the number touted as the daily homeless census.

READ MORE: NYC Shelter Count 2022

The City Council is now considering a legislative package that could overhaul homeless census reporting rules and force municipal agencies to publicize the true number of people staying in and exiting city shelters. Mayor Eric Adams’ new housing plan also acknowledges the need to establish a tracking system that captures the full census.

“Too often, government has tried to get cute with these numbers and not acknowledge the reality of our homeless problem,” said Chief Housing Officer Jessica Katz at a press conference June 14. “We’ve always just looked away and swept it under the rug, until now.”

Yet, the current version of the Council’s tracking bill, introduced by General Welfare Committee Chair Diana Ayala, would not take effect for another two years—a compromise with administration officials who have resisted an accurate homelessness census, according to people familiar with negotiations.

A City Hall spokesperson said the mayor is reviewing the legislation. Ayala did not provide a response for this story.

People experiencing homelessness and their advocates say the rule should go into effect immediately because the inadequate census has real policy consequences.

“From the basic common sense point of view, it’s nonsensical that the city doesn’t track or says it isn’t able to count everyone sleeping in shelters,” said Gabriela Sandoval Requena, a senior policy analyst for New Destiny Housing, an organization that builds supportive housing for victims of domestic violence.

There are more than 3,000 people staying in domestic violence shelters every day, according to records obtained by City Limits through Freedom of Information Law requests. When the Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio enacted a 2019 law forcing developers to set aside 15 percent of units for people experiencing homelessness in new city-financed apartment buildings, the program left out people in domestic violence shelters and applied only to people staying in certain DHS facilities.

The status quo census “translates to a poor allocation of resources by policymakers,” Sandoval Requena said. 

In addition to people staying in domestic violence shelters administered by the the Human Resources Administration (HRA), the “official” count published by DHS also leaves out people in transitional housing overseen by the HIV/AIDS Service Administration, young people in shelters contracting with the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), temporary facilities for displaced people run by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and a few thousand more in specialized DHS shelters for New Yorkers moving off the streets.

Since Jan. 1, City Limits has been compiling a more complete daily census that includes the facilities left off the daily DHS count after an accurate reporting bill died in Council committee last year. That measure faced stiff resistance from the de Blasio Administration, mostly due to optics: Why should one administration report a more complete—and higher—census when the last few mayors who they are judged against got to publish a piece of the real picture?

The reporting legislation, along with two related bills to track moves out of non-DHS shelters and CityFHEPS voucher usage rates, are essential for seeing what works, what doesn’t and what communities need more funding and support, said Lyndon Hernandez, a formerly homeless father who spent time in the DHS and DYCD systems.

“The census bill is important because we need to track what happens to a young person when they exit homelessness and we don’t currently do that right now,” said Hernandez, an advocate who introduced Adams at a press conference unveiling the housing plan earlier this month. 

“We have to take the scraps of what’s available, which is not cool and it’s not right,” added Elizabeth Sutter, another formerly homeless young person who advocates for better funding and services.

The current numbers can be hard to come by: while local law forces the city agencies to compile a monthly count (which City Limits has been tracking) the data is presented in a confusing format without information on moves. That monthly report shows more than 60,000 unduplicated New Yorkers spending at least one night in a city shelter every month between November 2021 and April 2022, the most recently reported period. 

Daily totals for several shelter systems are only available through a Freedom of Information Law request from each of the corresponding municipal agencies. Those figures illustrate the distribution of shelter facilities, like new Safe Haven sites, or the dwindling number of people staying in stabilization beds over the first two months of the year.

A look at the data from March 1 provides a more complete look at the true homeless numbers. That was the last day for which City Limits received a census covering HRA domestic violence shelters and DHS stabilization beds through a records request. Those numbers add to the “official” DHS tally of 45,289 people.

There were also 1,338 people in Safe Haven beds, 181 staying overnight in drop-in centers, 22 in beds offered by churches or other faith groups, 167 in hotels for the formerly incarcerated and 98 in veteran shelters. In addition, there were 734 in stabilization beds and 3,017 people in shelters for victims of domestic violence. 

HRA’s HASA shelter network reports a weekly census. On Feb. 26, the most recent data shared with City Limits, that number was at 2,553 people.

Overall, that’s 8,110 uncounted people, about 15 percent of the total. But that still doesn’t take into account hundreds more in HPD and DYCD shelters—data that City Limits has not yet obtained.

“Homelessness isn’t just one system, but when we create a narrative around a system we silence the experiences and voices of so many people who are having those experiences outside the DHS system,” said Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth.