New York conducts weather-delayed homeless count

New York conducts annual homeless count, delayed two weeks by winter weather, but critics say it’s flawed.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES (FEBRUARY 10, 2015) (REUTERS) – Thousands of volunteers fanned out across New York before dawn on Tuesday (February 10) to conduct the city’s yearly homeless survey, trying to count the people who wander the sidewalks all night, sleep in subways for warmth or slip into the shadows to avoid being seen.

New York City, like other major U.S. cities, uses a count of people living on its streets and alleys, parks and subways to estimate program needs, allocate resources and educate the public on issues facing the poorest residents.

The tally is also critical for accessing federal funding to tackle homelessness.

Critics say it grossly undercounts the homeless population, while others say a flawed count is better than none.

Last year’s count by the Department of Homeless Services found 3,357 street homeless people in New York City, most of them in the subways. A final count from Tuesday’s tally will not be released for months.

“I think homelessness is an epidemic in our city and our society,” said Stephanie Pennachia, a housing advocate who led a survey team through an area of Brooklyn.

“I definitely think it’s an epidemic. Anytime you have another human being struggling for survival, I would consider that an epidemic, definitely.”

Among those getting counted this year was Cynthia, pushing an overloaded grocery cart through downtown Brooklyn, where temperatures were below freezing in the hours before dawn.

Clad in a thin dirty t-shirt under a jacket, and wearing just one mitten, she politely declined help with a rambling tale of lost keys and a kidnapping. She also said her real mother was French fashion designer Coco Chanel.

A man named Charlie spoke just enough to indicate he preferred sleeping in a subway car to homeless shelter accommodations.

Another man walking to a subway insisted he was fine and had a place to sleep, but his thin clothes and tattered bag rendered his story unconvincing.

Mary Brosnahan, president and chief executive of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, said despite such stories, the tally’s methodology is deeply flawed.

She concludes that doing a simple head count in the middle of the night is “probably one of the worst ways to get an honest estimate.”

Among those missed are people who might be hiding, often those who are mentally ill, she added.

According to recent tallies, the number of street homeless in New York City is down 24 percent from a decade ago. But the overall number of homeless people living at shelters or elsewhere is at an all-time high of about 60,000, according to officials.

On hand to talk to some of the count’s volunteers, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said: “the science is not perfect; the condition is not perfect, but the people who are hitting the streets [to conduct survey] are perfect.”

“Homelessness is not a perfect condition. The face of homelessness changes all the time,” he said, citing gentrification and sky-high real estate prices as key factors.

“This system of taking a sampling of the population gives us an indicator of the conditions so we can assure that we receive the federal funding, we can have a real form of resources that can go after the homeless problem,” he said.

But New York City does not ask volunteers to venture into places that may be dangerous such as abandoned buildings or makeshift shanty towns, said Kim Hopper, a medical anthropologist and professor at Columbia University who is an expert on homelessness research. While necessary for safety, avoiding such areas could skew the numbers, he said.

Nonetheless, said Nan Roman, head of the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington, defended such counts, calling them “extremely valuable”.