New York City will change how it conducts its annual street homelessness count as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normally, on a January night, a few thousand volunteers fan out across the five boroughs to count the number of people living on city streets and in the subway system. Instead, in 2021, the survey is expected to take place over several nights, and it will be conducted by city workers and nonprofit outreach providers. Volunteers won’t participate due to health and safety concerns caused by the pandemic.
“Despite the unprecedented crisis our city continues to face, we are committed to safely conducting the annual HOPE Survey, leaving no stone unturned in our effort to reach every New Yorker experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks said in a statement.
The Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, or the HOPE count, as it is known, is a federal requirement that has been conducted annually in New York since 2005. Changes in the tally are taken as a measure of how successfully the city is helping some of the most vulnerable populations—the homeless who reject traditional shelters and often struggle with mental health issues and substance use.
The tally varies from year to year based on weather and other factors. There were 3,857 homeless New Yorkers on the street and in subways, according to the 2020 count, an increase of nearly 15% compared to 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio came into office.
In an effort to bring more people indoors during the pandemic, the city has made more stabilization beds—hotel rooms and SROs—available. It’s a key reason why more than 600 people have left the subway system since it started shutting down overnight in May.
This year, the Housing and Urban Development Department gave jurisdictions an option to take up to 14 days to conduct the count, as well as to cancel it altogether.
Catherine Trapani, executive director at Homeless Services United, a group that represents the outreach providers, said the city should have taken up HUD on its offer and canceled the count, as some jurisdictions have.
“The teams are already stretched fairly thin, and the idea that the paid outreach staff can do the same work as an army of volunteers just seems a little bit strange to me,” she said. “I just don't think it's feasible or safe to do it this year.”
Trapani said the method the city has chosen could result in an undercount, or force outreach teams to choose whether they perform their main job responsibility—helping homeless New Yorkers on the streets and subways—or do the survey.
City officials said keeping track of how many New Yorkers are living unsheltered is “crucial to addressing the challenge of homelessness.”
“We commend DSS for developing smart and practical plans to preserve the important effort under the circumstances,” Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Melanie Hartzog said in a statement.