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Survey says number of NYC’s unsheltered homeless is down, but advocates disagree

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The federally-mandated HOPE survey found that, compared to last year, there were 2 percent fewer unsheltered homeless individuals in the city

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A federal survey that counts individuals sleeping on the streets, parks, and subways on a given winter night every year, found that there are two percent fewer unsheltered homeless individuals in New York City, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) announced this week.

The federally-mandated Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) survey, conducted this year on January 29, found that 3,588 individuals were on the streets that night, making it “the second year in a row that this point-in-time survey has shown a decrease,” a DHS statement says. The survey showed there were 3,675 unsheltered homeless individuals in 2018 and 3,892 in 2017.

But the federal HOPE survey has been largely criticized over the years, given its limitations, including the weather on the one night per year it is conducted. When temperatures drop, homeless individuals seek temporary shelter, so they are less likely to be on the streets, advocates say. This is something that DHS acknowledges in their HOPE survey reports. For instance, the survey also showed that homelessness in subways increased by 23 percent, likely due to colder temperatures on the night of the survey.

“This year’s count was conducted during a cold winter in New York City and amid a continued housing affordability crisis here and across the nation, with economic factors, including rising rents outpacing incomes, continuing to drive homelessness,” a DHS statement on the survey results says. “This year, it was 28 degrees on the night the survey was conducted, with less than one inch of snowfall in the preceding 30 days.”

In a statement, DHS emphasized on Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement Street Action (HOME-STAT) outreach efforts that have “helped more than 2,200 New Yorkers experiencing unsheltered homelessness come off the streets and subways into transitional and permanent settings.”

NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS).

And just last month, the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless released a report that found that there were 64,000 men, women, and children sleeping in shelters each night in January.

“The methodology by which the city attempts to estimate the number of people who are unsheltered is fundamentally flawed—they’re not literally counting every single person, in certain areas they do a random sample of areas that they deem to be low-density, where they don’t think homeless people might be, and then they extrapolate the figures based on that random sample of neighborhoods,” Jacquelyn Simone, policy analyst from the Coalition for the Homeless, told Curbed.

“I think we always need to make sure that we’re taking these survey results with a grain of salt,” Simone continued. “When you recognize the limitations in the methodology, particularly because it is a point-in-time count, once a year, in a particularly cold night, the tendency to look too deeply into something like a 2 percent decrease, can be a bit overblown, frankly.”

But Simone agreed on the effectiveness of outreach and other city efforts (some, part of Mayor de Blasio’s Turning the Tide plan.) “We know increase in outreach is good, expanding the number of safe haven beds—which are low-threshold shelters—that’s also commendable, but we know that what we really need to do to dramatically reduce the number of people who are sleeping on the streets, is increasing pathways to permanent housing for people,” she said.

“There are a lot of people that we talk to on the streets every night who don’t want to go into a shelter, and they don’t want the option that the city is presenting them with, but they want housing—And why we have this intractable problem of homelessness is because we do not have enough current housing to actually meet the need and to move people quickly off the streets into a dignified, permanent, housing situation.”

“As the new estimate of unsheltered homelessness brings hope, the City Council continues its commitment to help homeless New Yorkers transition into a place they can call home,” City Council speaker Corey Johnson told Curbed in a statement.