With additional city agencies now providing more emergency lodging than ever before in a system that officials say is at a breaking point, monitoring the total number of people in shelter has only become more important—and more complicated.

Adi Talwar

Activists rallying in Manhattan on Dec. 5, 2023, in support of New York City’s right to shelter.

Since the start of 2022, City Limits has been trying to answer a seemingly simple question: How many people are staying in New York City’s homeless shelters?

Getting a complete answer is complicated. For years, mayoral administrations pointed to a daily census published by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which excludes thousands of people staying in facilities managed by other city agencies. Under a 2011 law, the city began reporting a monthly count across agencies, albeit in difficult-to-read PDFs replaced monthly on the city’s website.

In January 2022, City Limits began providing daily and monthly shelter counts using the most complete figures available at the time. In response to our reporting on the issue, Mayor Eric Adams’ administration promised to make changes.

Fast forward to July 2023, when City Council legislation required various agencies to overhaul how they share data on unhoused New Yorkers, unveiling a new, more comprehensive methodology. And as of this fall, their counts include thousands of newly arrived immigrants living in non-DHS shelters.

Now, with additional city agencies providing more emergency lodging than ever before in a system that officials say is at a breaking point, monitoring the total number of people in shelter has only become more important—and more complicated.

Our tracker shows that over 146,000 people slept in city shelters during the month of October—the most current data available—a 144 percent increase from January 2022.*

Milton Perez, a leader with the Homeless Union within VOCAL-NY, urged New Yorkers to think about the people behind these numbers, like the two men he’s gotten to know over the last year while getting his hair cut—barbers who recently immigrated to New York City and are sending money back to their families.

Formerly homeless himself, Perez emphasized the challenges of being unhoused, even as he and fellow advocates defend New York City’s unique right to a shelter bed, which Mayor Adams is currently challenging in court.

“The shock never goes away,” he said of the sheer number of people in shelter. “The size, just the pain and suffering that goes along with that.”

Pulling data from DHS’ daily reports, temporary housing usage numbers from the city’s Open Data portal, and the city’s monthly asylum seekers report, City Limits is liberating all the available data and compiling it in a refreshed shelter tracker that will be updated daily and monthly as new numbers become available.

Nightly numbers

Only DHS reports the number of people staying in its shelters nightly. The full population in DHS shelters is buried in a PDF on the city’s website, which is overwritten each night. City Limits scrapes this data to tabulate a more accurate total including specialized programs, with possible gaps if two reports are posted in the same 24 hour period.*

In the less than two years since City Limits began reporting DHS nightly census data, the population has more than doubled. The number continues to rise, accelerated by an influx of immigrants seeking temporary shelter beginning in spring 2022.

The full count

Yet these staggering DHS figures still miss tens of thousands of people staying in city-operated shelters each night, run by other city agencies. The Human Resources Administration (HRA), for example, operates thousands of beds for domestic violence survivors, as well as hundreds of beds for people with HIV and AIDS.

Hundreds of runaway and homeless youth stay in shelters administered by the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), while Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) provides shelter to people whose homes were destroyed in disasters like floods and fire. Additional beds serve people exiting incarceration and are operated by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ).

Under 2011’s Local Law 37, DHS, HRA, DYCD, and HPD were required to report the total number of people in temporary housing across agencies on a monthly basis.

Then, beginning In May 2023, the city changed its reporting to comply with the new Local Law 79. The 2022 amendment, long backed by homeless advocates, requires the city to report aggregate numbers of people in shelters across agencies.

While the first months of the new report included some newly-arrived immigrants, it initially left out people housed in Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers (HERRCs). The city began including its HERRC population—some 30,000 additional people—with its August 2023 report, though those numbers are a point-in-time count, representing the last night of a given month.*

This count is the best approximation of the total number of people in shelter, but it’s only issued once a month and on a delay. For example, the report issued in December provided data for October.

More children in shelter

DHS has the most complete data about who is staying in its shelters nightly. The agency counts children, adults living in families with children, adults living in families without children, and single adults.

Since spring 2023, children, including recently-arrived immigrants, have made up the largest group of people in DHS shelters, totaling over 33,000 individuals on Dec. 4—one in three DHS shelter users.

Viewed another way, the number of families with children in DHS shelters reached an unprecedented high of 19,389 on Dec. 4. That’s more than double the population for much of 2021, when the daily count of families with children in shelter dropped below 9,000.

Lurden Corona, a fellow with the Family Homelessness Coalition (a City Limits funder), spent about three years in shelter beginning in 2015.

“Having a lived experience with a child that had ADHD being in the shelter system, it’s really, really, really stressful,” Corona said. “Just imagine those families that are coming from a different country, a different background. It must be very traumatizing for them coming here not knowing the language, not knowing how the system works.” 

Single adults in specialized beds

Before immigrants began arriving in New York City in more significant numbers in spring of 2022, single adults were the largest individual group in DHS shelters. 

In addition to its traditional shelters, thousands of single adults stay in specialized facilities run by DHS. Thousands stay in Safe Havens—shelters with fewer barriers to entry for people living in public spaces. Special veteran programs, overnight drop-in centers and “faith beds” house dozens more, but data on these smaller programs is often reported inconsistently.

In a June 2023 report, the city Comptroller’s office called for expansion of Safe Havens as a solution to persistent street homelessness. While among the most visible, street homeless New Yorkers make up just 5 percent of the unhoused population, according to the report. The city publishes an estimate on the number of street homeless New Yorkers just once a year.

Where do “asylum seekers” stay?

As of Oct. 31, the city had more than 65,000 immigrants staying in temporary shelters, according to the Asylum Seekers Report, mandated by the City Council beginning this summer (while not all of those who’ve arrived in the city from the southern border this year and last are actively seeking asylum, City Limits will use the term as it corresponds to the city’s terminology).

Some of these individuals are also counted in DHS and Local Law 79 tallies, but the Council’s report provides more granular data about how the city is specifically serving this population.

The city’s emergency response has engaged a variety of agencies. Most asylum seekers stay in DHS shelters, with another large portion staying in facilities operated by NYC Health + Hospitals Corporation (HHC). HPD, New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM), and DYCD also manage emergency shelters.

In October, 77 percent of the asylum seeking population were part of families with children, with an average family size of 3.5 people. An additional 4 percent were related adults, mostly traveling in pairs. Roughly one in five asylum seekers is a single adult.

City Limits will continue to update these charts as part of our new NYC Shelter Count, where you can also read in more detail about our data reporting methods.

To reach the reporter behind this story, contact Emma@citylimits.org. To reach the editor, contact Jeanmarie@citylimits.org.

This project was generously supported by the Altman Foundation.​

*This story was updated after original publication to include additional information about the city's street homeless population data, to clarify details about the HERRC count included in the city's LL79 reports, and to correct the change in total shelter population from January 2022 to October 2023 based on clarifications from City Hall. Additionally, an earlier version of this story implied that gaps in the daily DHS census could only be attributed to a failure to report. City Limits regrets the error.