Is It Really Possible to Count Every Homeless New Yorker in One Night?

Once a year, thousands of volunteers canvass NYC interviewing the homeless, but critics question whether this parachute-in approach is accurate or adequate.

Is It Really Possible to Count Every Homeless New Yorker in One Night?

The line of volunteers snaked to the bottom of the stairs that led into the basement of the Mary Lindley Murray School in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan. At 10:20 p.m., only a few sugar-coated donuts were left in the Dunkin’ Donuts box set up next to an assortment of water bottles, granola bars and other snacks for the road. Volunteers who had already signed in were grabbing cups of coffee or tea to prepare for a long night ahead of them.

On Monday night, over 3,500 volunteers went out to canvass selected areas of New York City, and interview everyone they met. The Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) is an annual volunteer effort organized by the Department of Homeless Services to estimate the number of unsheltered individuals on the city’s streets. These numbers are crucial to assessing the services necessary to provide homelessness relief, as they are the basis of requests for federal funds.

The latest data published by the department in 2016 indicates 2,794 unsheltered homeless New Yorkers, in addition to over sixty thousand people currently sleeping in shelters. In 1990, the Census’ “Shelter and Street Night,” an effort similar in strategy to today’s HOPE, estimated 10,477 people sleeping on the street. While this number has dipped dramatically, the shelter population has nearly tripled from about twenty thousand in the 1990s. Those who experienced the city during that time might be surprised that the number of New Yorkers without permanent housing has increased so dramatically, but homelessness is just less visible today, not less prevalent.

Conducted, as usual, in the early morning hours in the deepest of winter, the timing of the count has been under fire for years, with critics speculating that this timing, when the lowest number of people are likely to be out on the street, is an intentional effort to skew the count towards the low end. The advocacy group Picture the Homeless shared the opinions of some of its members, who are without permanent housing themselves. “Doing it on the coldest night of the year, they’ll never get an accurate count,” Patrick Byer, a member, wrote on the group’s website. “But they don’t want to get an accurate count. They want to sweep us under the rug.”

This year, the HOPE volunteer effort took place on February 6 during the evening, which saw temperatures hospitably well above normal.

At midnight, after they had received their manila envelopes filled with green questionnaires, instruction sheets, and maps of the canvassing regions their team had been assigned, Team 18 was ready to head out onto the streets of Midtown. Clipboards in hand, the four team members walked towards the area they’d be exploring until four a.m. Three of the members were students in their twenties. Adina Lichtman, a 24-year old social work student at NYU, brought a friend to join her. It was her second time participating in the count, but she has engaged in other volunteer efforts serving homeless New Yorkers in the past. Tricia Dietz, 28, another member of Team 18, is a graduate student of urban planning at NYU. The brunette with a shy smile said she hopes that participating in the count will help her improve her approach toward homeless people in New York City, where she said it’s harder to connect with them than it was back home in San Diego.

Remi Hajjar, 45, is the veteran of the group, both figuratively and literally, he was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The well-built, sportily-dressed father of two teenage daughters quickly took charge of the group, and prepared everyone for the interactions they might encounter during the night. With his shaved head and black North Face jacket, he said he has often been mistaken for an undercover cop, which made it harder for him to get responses from people on the street. As the Director of the Sociology Program at West Point, this was his fourth time bringing a group of cadets to volunteer. He considers this to be a valuable experience for the thirty cadets Westpoint brought to this year’s HOPE night, all of whom are sociology majors. “But I’m not naïve enough not to be critical,” he said. Given Mayor Bill De Blasio’s promise to end homelessness in New York City, he also sees the event as an opportunity for local politicians and the department itself to advertise their commitment.

The first area the group approached, spanning three blocks between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, turned out to be by far the busiest, still buzzing with people, most of whom were heading back to the comfort of their homes. Team 18 took the instruction to “ask everybody” seriously. At some point, Dietz began yelling the most important question after people who didn’t want to stop and be interviewed: “Do you have a place to go tonight?” The responses were often positive, passersby thanked the volunteers for their efforts, and assured them that, yes, they had somewhere to lay their heads. A young, blonde-haired man, wearing a messenger bag and resting on his bike, responded with a shy smile. If it hadn’t been the middle of the night, he would have easily been written off as a bike messenger. As she spoke to him, Dietz ran down the list of questions on her green sheet: Would he mind answering some questions? Does he have a place to sleep for the night? Would he like information on services available if he doesn’t? The young man answered that he did not have a permanent place to stay, and took the card Dietz offered with details of the resources available to him. Hajjar took a guess regarding the man’s age, asking Dietz, “Late twenties, early thirties maybe?”

As the night progressed, garbage trucks and heaps of trash bags became the group’s main companions on the street. Especially in the section of their route through the Flatiron District, mannequins in brightly-lit storefronts were the closest they came to human encounters. It was late, and the majority of people the volunteers considered to be homeless were bundled up and asleep. Among others, the team spotted a person sleeping in front of a Home Depot, almost entirely covered by a sleeping bag. “Sometimes, you make your best guess, and move on,” Hajjar said. He walked around the sleeping person to assess their race, maybe even their age, noted the cross streets, and the team moved on. They had been given instructions not to wake anyone.

Unless the person they interviewed was willing to share their situation, it was up to the volunteers to decide who they considered to be homeless. Studies have found the practice of “discounting” to be a particularly important factor in limiting the accuracy of the count. Those who do not “appear homeless” are likely to be overlooked. Professor Beth Shinn, part of the group of scientists who led a 2008 study to assess the accuracy of HOPE, says this issue is not limited to volunteers.

“That is a problem that even professionals that I have been on the count with have,” Shinn says. Nevertheless, Shinn believes that the effect could be minimized by sufficient training. The training of HOPE volunteers was fairly brief, and seemed to come second to pep talks and assertions of commitment by local council members and administrative staff. In the twenty minutes set aside to discuss instructions before volunteers headed out to their areas, the instructor’s voice was drowned in the chatter of the newly assembled teams echoing in the neon-lit gymnasium.

Volunteers are not allowed to enter businesses or secluded areas, limiting their ability to account for those who seek shelter outside the view of passersby. As the group passed establishments that were still open, sometimes a sleeping patron could be seen through the window, but they went uncounted. The Department of Homelessness is aware of these limitations. Entering businesses presents a legal obstacle, while the avoidance of secluded areas is caused by a concern for the safety of the often-inexperienced volunteers.

Steve Banks, Commissioner of the Human Resources Administration appointed by Mayor De Blasio, admits that providing an accurate estimate is not necessarily the main objective. “It’s not so much about the numbers, it’s about finding out where people are, so we can reach them 365 days a year,” he said in his speech in front of more than a hundred volunteers who had assembled in the public-school gymnasium that night. Charles Blackstone, the Department of Homeless Services’ Director of External Content, Social Media, Communications and External Affairs, considers those who are out at this time to be most in need of a helping hand.

“It is a count, but it’s also an opportunity to pull a lot of resources and engage with these clients.” That is, if they are actually encountered by volunteers. The Department of Homeless Services proclaims outreach to be the primary objective of the annual count, providing them a better idea of locations and needs of their clients. However, their press releases often refer to the decreasing numbers as a sign of their success.

In a 2008 study, volunteers were sent out the day after the HOPE count, to interview people seeking assistance in soup kitchens, shelters and with other service providers and ask where they had spent the previous night. Many had spent the night in places out of reach to the canvassing volunteers. The city chose not to implement this step in future counts, despite the evidence that it could have led to more accurate numbers.

One man, who later identified himself as homeless, asked to speak to all members of the team, to share his perspective on the accuracy of homelessness data in the city. Homelessness is still very stigmatized, which is why all of the information he gave to the volunteers is strictly private. He was hanging out with his nephew, a twenty-something who kept his distance, standing by with a detached smile, as his uncle gave everyone a piece of his mind. The middle age African-American man opened up the conversation, asking the team members: “How many homeless people are there in New York at the moment?” The group members shuffled, before they agreed on about sixty thousand. He then asked how many they think there really are. Hajjar doubled the initial estimate. The man nodded in agreement. In an assumption that the city is grossly underreporting, he cited the nature of the count as one reason for their inaccuracy. “You ain’t gonna find them out here,” he said.