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February 12 2016

How NYC Counts the Homeless Is Fuzzy Math

Patrice J. Lee

When thousands of volunteers fanned out across the Big Apple recently to count the number of homeless people, they found far fewer people than would've been expected for a night when temperatures fell below freezing.

Unfortunately, it’s not because more New Yorkers have homes but because the counters were specifically told to ignore homeless people sleeping in publicly accessible private places. Phone booths, ATM booths, and McDonald's restaurants are all refuges for the homeless, but they also count as shelter to the City of New York. If that doesn't make sense, it shouldn't and it's in direct conflict with guidelines from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

A New York Post reporter tagged along for the homeless count and was surprised when during the training they were told not count those inside what qualifies as privately-owned space. If accuracy is what the am city is going for, why skip over people who by any commonsense definition are homeless? Perhaps the undercounting is intentional.

The New York Post reports this exclusive story:

“Those are the rules. Ignore the homeless people you see indoors,” a leader of the city’s homeless estimate program said.

 ‘Only survey public spaces, not private establishments such as restaurants or ATM booths.’

...

According to HUD’s 2014 “Point-in-Time Count Methodology Guide,” homeless people are defined as “an individual or family with a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings, including a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station, airport or camping ground.”

Several of the city’s volunteers questioned the methodology.

“That’s just the way we’re doing it,” the official said in response.

The city guidelines, which have been in place since 2005, forced one team of volunteers to intentionally lowball the number of vagrants in a 10-square-block section of the Upper East Side.

The New York Times reports that this counting method leads to a whole demographic of homeless people being uncounted: young homeless people. They blend in with other New Yorkers but like other homeless people, use private spaces as shelter:

But groups serving young homeless people said recently that the efforts fell far short of the need. The problem, they said, is how “homeless” is defined.

Young people staying temporarily with friends and extended family are “technically homeless, but they are not sleeping under a bridge,” said Douglas O’Dell, the executive director of the SCO Family of Services, a nonprofit focused on ending homelessness and helping low-income people and troubled young people.

Last year, the total number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in the city was 75,323, which included 1,706 people between ages 18 and 24. The actual number of young people is significantly higher, according to the service providers, who said the census mostly captured young people who received social services. The census takers were not allowed to enter private businesses, including many of the late-night spots where young people often create an ad hoc shelter by pretending to be customers.

Inaccurate data is a big deal. HUD uses data from an annual street census to dole funds out to local governments. We might expect there to be an incentive to over count homeless people then. But, on the other hand, the presence of a large and growing number of homeless people is one indication that current policies aren't working. The inaccurate counts are a sinister way of covering over the administration's economic failures. (Despite New York's undercounting, politicians are calling for massive amounts of federal funding on homelessness.)

Vagrancy is a legitimate issue for the city to understand and tackle. It has an economic impact on individuals, communities and businesses. It is also a quality of life issue. The solutions vary from immediate relief to helping individuals become self-sufficient through work, but it all begins by getting an accurate view of the problem.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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