Early in the morning on Tuesday, as freezing rain and flurries covered New York City with a thin layer of icy snow for the third time in as many weeks, hundreds of volunteers gave up a night of sleep to canvas parks, streets, and other public spaces throughout the five boroughs.
The annual initiative — run by the Department of Homeless Services and dubbed the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) — was first launched in 2003 and helps the city gather data to better serve the homeless people that are not able to get shelter at night. The city was one of the first in the country to launch the homeless census, which is now a federal requirement for towns and cities seeking certain kinds of funding.
In the Bronx, where 193 unsheltered people were counted last year, a few dozen volunteers packed a local college auditorium to learn what to ask those they met in the streets —whether they have a place to sleep, their veteran status, etc. — what services to offer, and how to fill out a survey for DHS.
"You guys are part of something huge tonight," Chris Schmidt, a trainer with the department, told the volunteers as they studied maps of the borough and stocked up on ponchos and cookies. "Thank you."
Shortly after midnight, small teams headed out into the streets — some accompanied by police officers — asking anyone out in the cold if they had a place to go for the night.
"Helping people is the best hobby," Diallo Thierno, a medical student from Guinea who moved to the United States six months ago to study English, told VICE News. He had never quite seen winter before.
Thierno's companions included a cook from Gambia, a graphic artist of Puerto Rican descent, and a man who works to improve relations between police and the city's youth through sports, who said he had joined the census as a "night off, just for myself — not about work."
They had learned about HOPE on Twitter and while looking for services on the city's official website, and signed up to fulfill New Year's resolutions and meet other "inspiring" New Yorkers.
"How often do you get to walk around the city in the middle of the night with a bunch of strangers that are trying to do something good?" Richard Guevara, who is originally from Ecuador but has lived in the Bronx long enough to remember it "in the Eighties," told VICE News.
Many of the city's homeless have disappeared since then. But the fact that they're mostly out of sight doesn't mean the problem is solved, he said.
"And it's not just about getting them to shelter — you then also have to help them get out of it," added Luis Melendez, as he guided the group through a stretch of streets where the only people in sight were standing in the light of a 24-hour bodega.
"Ma'am, we're doing a survey for the city about people's housing situation," Abdul Saho, another team member, asked an elderly lady who was pacing back and forth, talking to no one in particular. "Do you have a place to sleep?"
"I'll go to the shelter," she replied. "Do you have 50 cents?"
As the hours went by, the streets they canvassed appeared increasingly deserted.
"That's a good thing," said Guevara.
Nights like this — when the snow makes sleeping anywhere without cover almost impossible — give the city an opportunity to assess where the most urgent need is.
"In the winter, if you can get to shelter, you go to shelter," Carol David, an assistant commissioner at DHS, told VICE News at a meeting point for volunteers canvassing the South Bronx. "In the summer, everyone is out, but if you are out with this weather, that's why we are looking for you."
Unsheltered people — those sleeping outdoors or in public spaces, with little protection — are a small fraction of New York City's homeless. More than 60,000 New Yorkers, including a staggering 25,000 children, are currently sleeping in shelters, according to an estimate by the Coalition for the Homeless.
Many of New York's homeless individuals have jobs, often more than one, and children in school. They ended up without a home because they couldn't afford one — a problem the city is attempting to tackle through housing reforms, not just temporary shelter.
As the temperature dips, the city also enacts its "Code Blue" procedure, implementing live-saving measures aimed at getting the "chronically homeless" off the streets and into shelter. Last month, as New York prepared for the first major snow blizzard of the year, DHS postponed the HOPE census to focus on attending to the city's unsheltered homeless.
Homelessness in New York has steadily risen over the last decade, corresponding with rising housing costs and massive cuts to affordable housing options. Advocates have likened the city's homeless population to that of "a small city." But while a growing number of city residents live in shelter, the number of unsheltered people counted during the annual census is in decline.
Last year, HOPE volunteers counted 3,357 of them in selected areas across the five boroughs — 24 percent less than a decade prior. Data for this year will take weeks to crunch, as DHS staff process the hundreds of surveys volunteers filled out last night.
DHS also has outreach teams on the streets around the clock.