Homelessness in New York City continues to be a major issue, with an alarming 50,700 people in NYC shelters, comprised of 12,100 homeless families with 21,200 homeless children. Nearly 1.7 million City residents officially are classified as poor, with almost one in four living in poverty. These numbers show widening disparities of incomes, with some of the wealthiest and poorest people living in very close proximity. The lack of affordable housing, coupled with funding cuts to programs that provide paths to permanent housing has also increased the number of people at risk of homelessness, and pushed formerly homeless people back into the shelter system or on the streets. These numbers, while shocking, only account for those who are currently living in homeless shelters. But what about the homeless living on the streets?
With a population of more than eight million, 1 in 2,506 people in New York City live on the streets. The HOPE Count, which stands for the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate was started in 2005 to provide a more accurate year-to-year measure of the homeless population to assist in the evaluation of programs that help homeless New Yorkers move into permanent housing. Volunteers travel across New York City in groups during one night in January to calculate the number of homeless people living on the streets, as opposed to in shelters.  On the night of the HOPE Count, the City’s streets, parks, and subway stations are separated into approximately 7,000 HOPE Areas, each about the size of a few square blocks.
In preparation for the HOPE Count, The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) examines information provided by numerous nonprofit outreach organizations and past HOPE results to divide the City into high and low density areas in which populations of unsheltered individuals are expected to be found. DHS uses this approach to find concentrations of impoverished people to promote sufficient use of services and work with community members to ensure programs are effective and targeted toward high-risk populations. The HOPE Count 2013 data was released in May with mixed results, showing some significant changes in non-sheltered homeless rates since 2005.
Compared to 2005, The HOPE Count for 2013 recorded a 62 percent decrease in street homelessness for “surface areas,” defined as public areas such as parks, and streets excluding subway cars and train stations (which are calculated separately), the city waterfront, areas beneath bridges and other city infrastructure, as well as private lots or abandoned buildings. The HOPE Count 2013 also recorded the highest numbers of subway homeless population ever, at 1,841 people. In relation to 2012, the overall number of unsheltered people on the streets decreased only slightly (down 82 people). These figures demonstrate that while less people are staying on the streets, more people have moved to underground shelter. In reaction to this new data, the City and its partners will need to come up with new strategies to assist those surviving in the subway and to meet the continuing needs of those living on the streets.
DHS has used the HOPE Count to promote public accountability, bring attention to areas that are the most and least effective in moving people off the streets, and reorganize DHS efforts to provide outreach to as many at-risk homeless people living on the streets. For example, The HOPE Count helps calculate how many youths are currently on the street, which is useful when making decisions about allocating resources for programs, counseling, and shelter specifically targeted towards homeless youth. Hopefully, DHS will continue to use the data collected from the HOPE Count to better alleviate the issue of homelessness in New York City by ensuring people get shelter, and helping those already in shelters secure permanent housing.
Homelessness in New York City does not have one simple solution. Efforts like The HOPE Count help generate data around the many faces of homelessness in New York City, creating critical dialogue that promotes necessary changes to reduce rates of street homelessness. HSC, as a representative of many nonprofit agencies that work closely with homeless and at risk populations, encourages such conversations as they bring attention to the public policy challenges we face in addressing the complex issues faced by the neediest New Yorkers.
Contributed by Laurina Santi and Marisa Semensohn of the Human Services Council.