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Is New York City Trying to Hide Its Homeless?

The city works hard to get chronically homeless people off the streets, but ignores those in shelters who still need permanent housing.

Photo Credit: josjos on Flickr


For a winter night in New York, January 30 was unusually warm. That was a good thing for the over 41,000 New Yorkers who don't have a roof over their heads as well as the 3,000 volunteers who participated in the 2012 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, a survey of the city's homeless population conducted annually by the NYC Department of Homeless Services. The HOPE survey is meant to provide a point-in-time snapshot of street homelessness in New York, but many homeless activists wonder: What do those estimates really tell us about New Yorkers struggling with housing security? And how effectively do they reflect the city's commitment, or lack thereof, to end homelessness?

On HOPE night, volunteers set out shortly after midnight from dozens of training sites scattered across all five boroughs. They would canvas New York's streets, alleys, parks, and subway stations, counting the number of people who did not have a private place to stay overnight.

I followed a group of students whose designated study area included a few midtown Manhattan blocks. They were led by Joe Hallmark of the Goddard Riverside Community Center in Manhattan and accompanied by Commissioner Seth Diamond and five or six DHS staff members. As we marched along the well-lit streets, team members stopped to interview every homeless individual they saw in their study area, unless the person was asleep.

For Hallmark and his team at the community center, this was a familiar task. "Twenty-four hours a day we have teams out in the field, basically just canvasing the streets looking for homeless individuals" and offering them housing services, he said.

The community center is one of a few non-profits contracted by the city to reach out to New York's homeless population. Offering housing support and employment and health services, the group's mission is to place chronically homeless individuals in permanent housing. According to Hallmark, the group boasts an up to 90 percent success rate for individuals transitioning successfully to permanent housing.

Common Ground, another outreach non-profit that serves Queens, Brooklyn and midtown Manhattan, has reported that its program reduced street homelessness by 87 percent in the 20-block Times Square neighborhood and by 43 percent in the surrounding 230 blocks of west Midtown. On the whole, the city has reported a 40 percent decline in street homelessness since 2005, which puts New York in a list of cities with the lowest rates of street homelessness in the U.S.

Still, there is reason to wonder whether New York officials are committed to ending homelessness, or just sweeping it under the rug.

Programs that tackle homelessness effectively by offering affordable housing, like the ones mentioned above, are often not available to individuals who are already in the shelter system. In other words, the city prioritizes getting chronically homeless people off of the streets, but readily ignores those who are living in a shelter and still need permanent housing. According to Patrick Markee, a senior analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, right now there is virtually no city-funded housing assistance available for homeless families in the shelter system.

Despite the city proudly announcing last year a 40-percent reduction in street homeless population since 2005, more families are stuck in the shelter system than ever. The placement of homeless families in shelters to permanent housing in 2011 dropped a staggering 25 percent from the previous year as the total number of homeless families receiving shelter service in New York only dropped 5 percent, according to DHS. Meanwhile, the placement rate for families with children dropped from 35 percent in 2010 to 28 percent in 2011.

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