Street homelessness down in NYC

March 4, 2009 5:16:41 PM PST
The number of homeless people on the city's streets has declined 30 percent from last year, New York City's Department of Homeless Services said Wednesday, citing revamped policies for the drop. But advocates for the homeless were skeptical, unconvinced that there are fewer street homeless and continuing to question the methodology of the survey used to make the estimate.

The agency said its estimate puts 2,328 homeless people on streets, public spaces and subways on the night of this year's street survey. That's down from 3,306 last year and 4,395 in 2005.

The numbers do not include the tens of thousands of people staying in the city's shelters on any given night. On Monday of this week, more than 35,000 people, including 8,073 families with children, stayed in New York shelters.

But city officials argued that the drop in the yearly count was proof of accomplishment.

"This year's numbers prove that if you give us the time and we stay focused on partnership we can achieve great results," said Commissioner Robert Hess.

As struggling homeowners have felt the pinch of a stumbling economy and seen the number of foreclosures soar, homelessness has become a not-so-distant specter for many.

Federal officials have said HUD will oversee at least a tenfold increase in spending in coming months on programs designed to prevent homelessness. The economic stimulus bill recently signed by President Barack Obama includes $1.5 billion to help families pay rent, make a security deposit, pay utilities and cover other housing expenses.

New York City determines its estimate by conducting a street survey across all five boroughs. On a single night, volunteers look for homeless people sleeping on the streets. Decoys are planted to test the accuracy of the head count.

The city's first street homeless survey was in 2003, but the annual counts did not include all five boroughs until 2005. In recent years, cities across the country have undertaken street homeless surveys because the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires it for any community seeking federal funds for homeless programs.

The most recent count across the country was done in January; results from other large cities have yet to be released. This year's count was the first since the country went into recession, and those doing the counts were concerned about the impact of the economic crisis.

Officials in New York said the drop in street homelessness corresponds to an overhaul in the agency's approach. They cited new performance standards, expanded housing options, and better coordination with other city departments.

Advocates, while acknowledging some of the positive changes in approach, still found the street homeless estimate hard to believe.

"The numbers released by the city today defy credibility and run counter to what New Yorkers observe every day on New York's streets," said Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. "Looked at over a four year period the city is arguing it has cut street homelessness in half. Do New Yorkers really think there are half as many homeless people on our streets as four years ago?"

Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the coalition, questioned whether a one-night survey done in winter could produce an accurate assessment.

It "doesn't really tell you all that much about the scale of street homelessness throughout the year," he said.