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No One Knows How Many Homeless People Live in New York

There are many challenges to accurately counting the number of homeless people in a city with over 8 million residents, chief among them being how to decide what qualifies a person as being "homeless."

A homeless woman in New York last month. Photo by Timothy A. Clary via Getty

New York City's homeless youth are the invisible population everybody sees. Housing has been an issue here for as long as the city has existed, but the number of people on the streets has increased visibly over the last few years. Mayor Bill de Blasio has issued hundreds of additional beds at shelter spaces in response to the public outcry about the problem, and Crain's New York Business reports 311 calls about homelessness in the city have more than doubled from 2013 to 2015. The numbers from last year's Department of Homeless Services' (DHS) annual HOPE Count, a day in which over 3,000 volunteers scour the five boroughs for a head count of the homeless, were somewhat encouraging, with the tally coming in at 3,183, down slightly from 2014's 3,357. Unfortunately, the HOPE Count is by no means comprehensive and is prone to undercounting, particularly when it comes to homeless youth.


On Monday, DHS performed the federally mandated count for 2016. There are many challenges to accurately counting the number of homeless people in a city with over 8 million residents, chief among them being how to decide what qualifies a person as being "homeless"? According to Kimberly Forte, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, a group that specializes in representing low-income New Yorkers: "That is just people who are found in public areas and on the street." This doesn't include demographics that include large numbers of young people, such as couch surfers, people squatting abandoned buildings, and sex workers spending the night with a client just to have a roof over their heads. By the federal definition, they were not homeless on Monday.

The results of the tally, which won't be released until at least the summer, directly affect how much the federal government allocates to social services aimed at the homeless. Undercounting leads to underfunding, which cuts the amount of aid to vulnerable, homeless youth.

In December 2013, the Legal Aid Society, along with co-counsel Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, filed a lawsuit on behalf of 4,000 homeless youth ages 16 to 20 in order to create a right to shelter and mandate aid like mental health services. The still-ongoing lawsuit is one of the many efforts to alleviate an urgent and complex issue. Staff attorney Beth Hofmeister and Forte spoke to us about it over the phone.


VICE: Why do you think the count is insufficient?
Kimberly Forte: The reason we think that the count is insufficient is that the city is bound to count based on the federal definition of who is homeless. That is just people who are found in public areas and on the streets. So, unfortunately, the federal government program that does this does not take into consideration, for example, young people who are trading sex for shelter. Young people who find themselves spending the night in, say, 24-hour McDonald's are not counted. Young people who may be on the subway may not be considered homeless even if there is someone counting on the subway that day because he or she may not be perceived as homeless by the counter.

Now, the city has engaged in a youth count where over the next week they ask a bunch of homeless shelter providers to ask young people where they have stayed the night before. So they're trying to expand that count by reaching young people in different ways. However, the count shouldn't be only in winter. We feel that there should be more counts throughout the year in different seasons, and there should be a better way to count young people over a longer period of time.

Why do they perform the count in the winter?
Beth: The federal government wants it to be at a cold time of year because they feel like anyone who is sleeping on the street during the coldest time of the year really must not have somewhere else to go. I guess this is opposed to in the summer where they might just be sleeping on the street for fun, which, obviously, as an advocate, I don't believe is true. I don't think anyone sleeps on the street for fun. But that's the premise.


The adult count is really about identifying who the street homeless are, for the purposes of services. The youth count component is a little bit different. While they think they have taken into consideration some unique factors, we don't feel like it is actually capturing even a small number of the homeless youth population, because their homelessness can look a little bit different.

Does the city gain anything by undercounting?
Kim: Historically I do believe that was probably true, that a city benefitted from an undercount. I will acknowledge, though, that Mayor de Blasio and Steve Banks are now taking this issue very seriously with their announcement a few weeks ago to add 300 shelter beds, and it is apparent to us that they are recognizing that this is an undercount. Their desire to do more quarterly counts is an effort for them to see a larger picture of the homeless problem and the homeless youth problem. So they're coming out of that historical perspective that, sure, it was helpful because they wouldn't need many beds, but now I think they're beginning to understand and take efforts to show that is not true.

What do you think undercounting does for perception? Does a low count make people less sympathetic?
Kim: I don't know about that. Every time I go to a meeting about homelessness outside of the legal community everyone agrees that they're seeing the street population increase. If anything, they feel that the numbers aren't reflecting what they're seeing. I don't think anyone is purposely trying to undercount a population, and often their hands are tied as to how you define the youth count. The nature of the count is that it maybe isn't designed as well as it could be to capture who is actually homeless in the youth population.


Can you talk about the difficulty of finding shelter for those under 18?
Kim: Prior to our litigation, it was historically true that young people under the age of 18 were unable to enter shelters. That was really under the Bloomberg administration and in prior years of his leadership. Now, since de Blasio has taken office—but mostly because we filed our lawsuit—16-and 17-year-olds are defined as runaway and homeless by law and are now admitted to shelters.

Beth: But it is a different shelter system than the Department of Homeless Services system. DHS runs the adult and homeless family shelter system in New York City, but the Department of Youth and Community Development runs the youth shelter system, so they are the system that would take in the 16- and 17-year-olds.

Tell me a little more about the lawsuit.
Kim: We, along with our co-council, filed a lawsuit on behalf of 11 anonymous young people who were homeless and being denied access to shelter and youth specific services. Many of these young people had multiple mental health diagnoses, had been homeless over the course of a few years of their lives, and identified in the queer community. Specifically, we had two to three transgendered clients who were brave enough to give their story.

Ultimately it was a class action case, so we agreed with the city that there was a class of young people who were being denied shelter and services in this city. We currently just completed the discovery process with the City of New York, which has taken over two years.


It is baffling to us, and I say that very strongly, as to why the city has not settled our lawsuits. Especially given the fact that Mayor de Blasio has come out very publicly in recent weeks and said young people have a right to youth shelter. Both he and Mr. Banks have promised that any young person who appears either to the DYCD or to the DHS shelter system will be afforded an opportunity to be placed in youth shelter and that they will ensure young people don't have to make the critical choice of choosing to stay on the street or choosing to go to a shelter where they feel unsafe. We were hopeful that with these announcements the city would want to settle our case, but it is very surprising to us that they are continuing to litigate this action in federal court.

What about the LGBT homeless?
Kim: What we know to be true is that upwards of 40 percent of New York City youth who are homeless identify in the LGBT community. In Washington, DC, the city actually did a deliberate study on its homeless population, and it was 50 percent.

When you think about the comparison, sociological studies are about who is actually in the LGBT community, and we now know that we are seeing at least double, if not triple the number of homeless youth population who identify this way. It's in large part due to family rejection, young people not feeling safe at home, system failure of young people not feeling safe in the foster care system, having gone through the juvenile justice system in the past and not getting services that were supportive of their gender identity or sexual orientation so they didn't get the interventions they needed early enough in their lives to have them not end up in the homeless system.

There are two great providers, Street Work and the Ali Forney Center, that have made a deliberate effort to ensure their LGBT youth are very safe. Covenant House is the other youth provider and is working on its ability to ensure safety of LBGT people in its space. But certainly the DHS system is a very scary place for queer youth to go into, and they will tell you countless stories of going into these massive shelters and completely being victimized because of their gender identity and sexual orientation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For more on homelessness in New York City visit Coalition for the Homeless.

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