Why are thousands of people missing from New York City’s daily homeless census?

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Why are thousands of people missing from New York City's daily homeless census

Source: AUN News

Every journalist can recall a time when they missed something important. David Brand, a social worker turned writer, was assigned by City Limits, a tiny nonprofit news channel, three years ago to write a series of pieces concerning family homelessness in New York City. Brand had previously worked with clients navigating the city’s massive shelter system. He possessed a significantly robust understanding of the subject, or so he thought. He’d written freelance stories about the treatment of immigrants in shelters, the training requirements of homeless-shelter cops, and the difficulties that kids who age out of foster care experience while attempting to eat well.

Brand interviewed numerous mothers with young children about their experiences in city shelters for the first article in the family-homelessness series. Following its publication, a homeless rights advocate contacted to warn Brand. Why was he quoting City Hall’s average shelter-population figures? Those were poor figures, according to the lawyer. Tens of thousands of individuals slept every night in shelters managed by the Department of Homeless Services, including New York City’s largest adult and family shelters, according to city statistics. However, thousands more individuals stayed in smaller shelters managed by other city organizations, including runaway child shelters, H.I.V./AIDS shelters, domestic violence shelters, and disaster relief shelters. Brand still sounds dazed when discussing it. He just revealed to me, “I used to work right across the street from a refuge for victims of domestic violence. But I never honestly considered that the stated figures might not represent an actual census.

Today As a full-time contributor to City Limits, Brand has written a regular stream of meticulously researched articles about homelessness and the city’s efforts to combat it. He has learned to be more precise when discussing homelessness statistics for the town. He may spend a paragraph or two in an article explaining the differences between data from the Department of Homeless Services and information on the entire city’s shelter system. Brand and his editor, Jeanmarie Evelly, decided to publish a more comprehensive daily census late last year after years of witnessing the city refuse to do so. City Limits created a “tracker” that provided a broader view of the city’s shelter population by searching through publicly available statistics and submitting Freedom of Information requests for data that aren’t often publicized. The undertaking began in January. Since then, Brand has updated the tracker daily with data from the Department of Homeless Services and information about people leaving shelters managed by other organizations. These other organizations are currently required to compile a tally of the number of “unduplicated” people that stay in their shelters each month. Together, these data reveal that, from January through May of this year, more than 60,000 people spent at least one night in city shelters, nearly 20% more than the Department of Homeless Services recorded. Regardless of the agency providing for them, Brand stated that these are folks who need permanent housing. People being left out of the count and thereby missing out on potential answers has some real-world repercussions.

The tracker divides the information into categories such as adult, family, veteran, etc. It also demonstrates the evolution of the city’s shelter populace. The city’s data available to the public is frequently presented in cumbersome PDFs or difficult-to-read spreadsheets. In contrast, City Limits’ tracker is designed as a collection of interactive graphs where one can quickly find information like the number of children who stayed in Department of Homeless Services shelters on July 1 or the number of people who stayed in disaster shelters run by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in January—the month of the Twin Parks apartment complex fire in the Bronx.

Brand and Evelly informed me that the tracker helped them prioritize their coverage and develop article ideas. For instance, Mayor Eric Adams claimed that a recent rise in the number of people staying in shelters run by the Department of Homeless Services resulted from a “historic rush” of migrants seeking refuge brought to New York City from Texas and Arizona. But Brand had his doubts. Homeless advocates claim that the end of New York City’s pandemic-era eviction moratorium has caused an increase in the number of people living in shelters, which the City Limits tracker shows have increased by about 4,000 people since the beginning of the year. A large portion of this increase has been in family shelters. Brand remarked, “The data you select to convey says a lot. It also suggests what you are attempting to conceal or disguise. Brand has requested the last-known addresses of shelter inhabitants, information that he is confident the city has, to obtain a more precise estimate of the number of migrants who have recently entered the shelter system.

City Limits, established in 1976 by housing activists, employs seven people full-time. The workforce of the city of New York totals hundreds of thousands. There is no practical justification for the news organization to be able to create a more beneficial and thorough shelter census than the city. In 2018, Brooklyn City Councilman Stephen Levin introduced a bill that would have altered the local’s shelter reporting to more accurately reflect the data gathered by all city departments. The Bill de Blasio administration opposed the proposal.

Under de Blasio, who viewed eradicating inequality as his primary political goal, homelessness in New York City reached record highs. Steven Banks, a longstanding Legal Aid lawyer and advocate for the homeless, was responsible for the administration’s homelessness policies in 2016. (In the ’80s, Banks participated in some of the legal actions that led to the establishment of New York City’s unique “right to shelter” law, which mandates that anybody in need of a bed be provided with one.) The city’s family shelter population was down by about 30% by the end of de Blasio’s term, and the Department of Homeless Services census numbers were lower than when de Blasio took office—decreases that de Blasio and Banks were proud of. However, the single-adult shelter population had increased by more than 60% from eight years earlier. In a City Council hearing last year, Banks argued that altering the reporting standards for the homeless census would disguise those successes and the choices that had led to them. According to Banks, “I believe it’s vital to compare apples to apples.” “You would have to go back in time and alter every other administration’s census,” the author said. The Levin bill was unsuccessful.

New administrations frequently view data with fresh eyes. They often do so for unknown reasons as well. Adams ran for mayor last year, promising to develop a CompStat for other municipal agencies. Adams rose through the ranks as a transit police officer when his bosses reinvented data reporting in policing with the CompStat program. He has clarified that he opposes the bureaucratic compartmentalization that would put statistics from domestic violence and family shelters in separate official reports. The City Council approved a new law earlier this month that would update the reporting rules for shelter statistics by 2024. According to City Hall, the Adams administration wants to alter the daily census earlier, maybe in 2023. In June, Adams published a housing “blueprint” that included the commitment to improve homelessness metrics and data by having all city shelters, not just those managed by the Department of Homeless Services. At a press conference announcing the plan, Jessica Katz, Adams’s top housing official, stated, “Government has too frequently tried to get nice with these figures and not confront the truth of our homelessness situation.”

Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network

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