Mayor de Blasio announced on Thursday that the City's annual, midwinter count of the street homeless population showed a 12% year-to-year decline.
According to the City, 2,794 homeless individuals were counted on the street on the night of February 9th, compared to 3,182 in 2015. This year's count also marked a 36% decline over the first such count, conducted in 2005, which turned up 4,395 street homeless New Yorkers.
"The city has made smart, strategic investments to improve our ability to identify and serve homeless New Yorkers," said Mayor de Blasio in a statement this week. "The decrease found ... shows that progress is possible."
The Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) count is a citywide survey conducted over the course of one night each year, wrangling more than 3,000 volunteers across the five boroughs. Teams of between three and six volunteers fan out to streets and subway platforms, referred to as "canvas zones," where the homeless are believed to congregate in cold weather. Counters are encouraged to refer the homeless to shelters and drop-in-centers. (In at least one instance last year, DHS was not prepared to transport a homeless woman to a shelter.)
Funding for the sweep comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and federal funding to combat homelessness is administered accordingly.
There are currently 58,013 homeless New Yorkers in the shelter system, according to the City, on par with December 2015 numbers. Of that population, 22,785 are children. In November, the mayor announced a $2.6 billion plan to move people from shelters into 15,000 supportive housing units over the next 15 years.
Longtime critics of the HOPE count, including the Coalition for the Homeless and Picture the Homeless, have argued that conducting such a survey on one of the coldest nights of the year inevitably turns back a low number, since New Yorkers who tend to avoid shelters may turn to them in extreme weather. The count also excludes homeless New Yorkers who couch-surf, are hospitalized, or spend the night in 24-hour businesses.
This year, Picture the Homeless participated in the Shadow Count, an effort to test the accuracy of the HOPE count. Members of the group dispersed throughout the city, and reported back whether or not they were counted by volunteers. "We got counted on the sidewalk outside of Harlem Hospital, but tons of homeless people were sleeping in the ER and they didn't get counted," PTH member Jazmin Reyes said at the time.
The City plants "decoys" on the night of the HOPE count—volunteers "trained to appear homeless," according to the release—to test its accuracy. This year, 85% of them were counted.
"The City is trying to make it look like they're doing something," added PTH member Jerome McCoy. "But the problem they're fixing isn't homelessness—it's the appearance of homelessness.... If they really wanted to fix the problem, they'd put us someplace permanent. An apartment. It'd cost a lot less for them to pay my rent than it does for them to keep me in the shelter where I am."
"Any rational person would agree that sending volunteers out on a single, bitterly-cold night in the dead of winter and attempting to count the heads of those who appear homeless is a preposterous way to accurately gauge the magnitude of the problem," said Coalition for the Homeless President Mary Brosnahan in a statement. "It simply defies credibility."
In December, Mayor de Blasio announced HOME-STAT—Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement Street Action Teams—an initiative that entails daily canvassing of the homeless population in Manhattan and an expansion of the NYPD's homeless outreach unit. Starting in May, HOME-STAT will count street homeless on a quarterly basis—a "complement" to the HOPE count, according to the City.