Merely an hour after the Department of Homeless Services issued its press release Wednesday, the Coalition for the Homeless issued one, too. "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 Coalition Executive Director Mary Brosnahan. "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?"
The Coalition and other advocates for the homeless have a detailed – and at this point, predictable – critique of the annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, a one-night "point in time" count conducted by cities around the country in order to qualify for funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Critics say the methodology of the "HOPE survey" is flawed, the conclusions reached are wrongheaded, and the whole exercise serves to distract from primary goals. But DHS' confidence in the tally, buttressed by similar counts conducted nationwide, suggests the survey will be repeated.
“Through HOPE, we have found a way to more accurately measure the reality of what is happening on our streets and create practical solutions that make an impact for both our clients and our communities. We have brought services curbside, and in doing so, placed thousands of the most vulnerable New Yorkers into housing," DHS Commissioner Robert V. Hess said in the announcement March 4, claiming an estimated 2,328 unsheltered homeless people citywide, down 30 percent from 3,306 a year ago, and 47 percent from 4,395 in 2005. The same day, the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness also jumped into the quick-response fray, issuing a statement praising New York's experience "because it reminds us that social problems can be solved when creative and determined people focus their resources on solutions."
According to DHS press secretary Heather Janik, that focus has taken several forms. The department has gone from contracting with numerous organizations for outreach work with the street homeless, down to one per borough, and increased incentives for placing homeless people into housing (rather than for making a particular number of contacts). Outreach workers also are now specifically targeting chronically homeless individuals, because they tend to need the most help getting off the street. And instead of having only emergency shelters and drop-in centers to offer the homeless, there is now "a much broader menu of housing placement options" including more than 600 "Safe Haven" and "stabilization" beds, which have much lower barriers to entry than traditional shelter options. In the field of homeless services, this is called a "Housing First" approach (not to be confused with the city coalition by the same name that's often credited with spurring the Bloomberg administration's commitment to developing affordable housing).
According to Janik, "over 3,000 individuals, and, within that, over 1,250 chronically homeless individuals have been placed into transitional and permanent housing since the new outreach services were launched in September 2007. Additionally, the number of street homeless individuals placed into permanent housing increased by almost 50 percent comparing FY2007 to FY2008."
But how can street homelessness be dropping when family homelessness stands at a record high? "There are different dynamics affecting street homelessness and family homelessness," is Janik's answer. "It is not yet clear how and if the economic situation will affect street homeless levels in NYC."
Jamie Van Leeuwen, executive director of Denver's Road Home, agrees. Van Leeuwen, who oversees Denver's 10-year plan to end homelessness – and is still waiting for the results of his city's one-night street count – says the newer economic pressures may have less of an impact on the chronically street homeless.
"Families are dealing with different issues in terms of what they need to stay stable," he said. For those who have been on the streets awhile, "an increase in unemployment is not going to make them more homeless than they already are."
In its praise of New York City's numbers, the National Alliance to End Homelessness also noted Denver, Portland and Chicago as places where use of the "Housing First" philosophy is showing results. An approach that prioritizes moving the homeless into permanent housing, period, over requiring them to "graduate" from one temporary level to another through achievements like addressing substance abuse or demonstrating responsibility, Housing First is being embraced by many localities as more cost-effective than expensive shelter beds or the emergency medicine used more often by homeless people when they're unsheltered. Denver claims to have created 1,243 new units of housing for the homeless since its "Road Home" initiative began in 2003.
Whether it's because hundreds of cities are doing the one-night counts in order to qualify for HUD funding, or because more than ever have crafted long-range plans (New York's is for five years), there's a new level of collaboration between localities on these issues, Van Leeuwen says. Despite being in Africa last week, he felt the buzz of New York's announcement because his in-box was full of e-mails on the topic.
"The reality is that cities are really trying to work more strategically and more collaboratively," he said. Criticisms of the one-night count aren't news to him, either: "The point-in-time count is one barometer. It's not the only barometer." When Denver's street count dropped by more than one-third following the development of hundreds of new housing units for the homeless, he found that meaningful. But "I think our numbers for chronic homelessness will always be an imperfect science."
Cities do approach the hard work of data collection differently, however. In Portland, Ore., for example, surveyors make a point to look into the very "interiors" (cars, abandoned buildings) that NYC's volunteers are told to avoid, for their own safety. Portland has its outreach workers, who are familiar with the people and places, assist with the count: "They're more comfortable going to the camps because they've already been there," said Sally Erickson, manager of the Ending Homelessness Initiative.
A strong proponent of Housing First, Erickson echoes Van Leeuwen's enthusiasm about strides being made through cities' implementation of strategic plans. "If you set goals for yourself, you're more likely to get somewhere," Erickson says.
Her city's 10-year plan benefited from a hefty dose of funding early on for rental assistance; the vacancy rate for inexpensive rentals rivals that of Manhattan these days, she said. Only 20 years ago, a livable apartment could be had in Portland for under $200 in today's dollars.
That same lack in New York is one reason why some homeless advocates are frustrated with the HOPE ritual. The grassroots organization Picture the Homeless, a reliable Bloomberg administration critic, didn't even bother to issue its own statement on HOPE this year. "The whole idea of counting homeless people is not something we think is a priority," lead organizer Sam Miller said. The fact is, too many New Yorkers have no shelter – while numerous properties and buildings sit vacant. Miller's group is focused on turning those into homes for people who need them.
Similarly, Coalition for the Homeless' senior policy analyst Patrick Markee says, "It's not the most useful exercise compared to the real goal of getting the permanent supportive housing they truly need." And it's supportive housing and other permanent solutions – not transitional (albeit better then traditional shelter) responses like "Safe Havens" – that really meet the Housing First definition, he and others attest.
As the vice president for housing operations at Housing Works, the nonprofit housing and service group for people with HIV/AIDS, Ken Robinson sees the situation from several perspectives. Not only does he lead an aggressive advocacy organization, he also serves as a co-chair of the Coalition on the Continuum of Care, which coordinates matters related to the distribution of more than $80 million from HUD (which is why the one-night surveys are done in the first place). Robinson said he understands the controversy over HOPE – though his own beef is only that it's held overnight in the dead of winter.
Getting to the real question of whether Housing Works' front-line staffers, who aid street homeless people with substance abuse problems, are seeing more or fewer people lately, Robinson points to an enduring reality. "There's always been more than they can handle."