On Monday, Feb. 8, approximately 3,000 volunteers dispersed throughout the five boroughs of New York City to canvass subways, parks and other public spaces and record the number of people found living on the streets.
The homeless count is conducted by the city’s Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE). The number determines the amount of funding that New York City receives from the federal government. Volunteers, sent out into the city in small groups, are instructed to approach anyone who they suspect is homeless and ask if they have a place to stay. If they say no, the volunteers offer them a bed in a drop-in or emergency shelter. Some groups encounter as many as 25 people sleeping on the streets, or as few as one or two. The largest homeless population is ordinarily found in Manhattan.
Last year, the city determined that 75,323 people in New York, including both sheltered and unsheltered individuals, were homeless. An estimated 1,706 of them were between the ages of 18 and 24. These people, still on the brink of adulthood, are often in need of support, both financial and psychological, as they bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood.
Many young homeless people, however, slip by unobserved. The census mainly reflects the number of youths who receive social services; the actual count is much higher. Under-counting means that fewer social services are available than are needed, forcing teens into prostitution and other situations that put their health at risk. In this way, the cycle of long-term homelessness continues, despite HOPE’s efforts.
The census-takers are prohibited from entering private businesses, which further skews the government’s statistics. Many homeless people use places that are open late at night as temporary shelters, posing as customers in order to have a roof over their heads. HOPE needs to find a way to include even those who manage to find a temporary shelter in their final count.
Under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the number of New Yorkers without a home grew even more. In 2004, the Bloomberg administration adopted policies that were meant to force the homeless to become more self-reliant. Bloomberg hypothesized that those living on the streets would be empowered, and that homelessness would decrease.
Bloomberg’s actions, of course, had the opposite effect. Under his administration, the shelter population exceeded 40,000 for the first time in the city’s history.
Since 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio has made a concerted effort to reduce homelessness throughout the city. He has focused particularly on veterans, along with families with children and people with mental illnesses. Six years ago, there were 3,689 homeless veterans in New York City; today, that number is down to 760. While this achievement indisputably marks a step in the right direction, the de Blasio administration needs to give homeless youth the same scrupulous attention that is has devoted to veterans.
It is hard to account for those who are not in shelters or sleeping out in the open. Most shelters for young people have waiting lists, meaning that the number of sheltered youths is drastically lower than the overall count of homeless youths in the city. Therefore, unless they resort to sleeping in the streets, these young adults are not acknowledged in the census.
The question of age is frequently up for debate surrounding the issue of homeless youth. Those between the ages of 18 and 20, who comprise a large number of homeless individuals, are not entitled to youth-specific shelters. At the same time, they cannot be expected to be entirely self-sufficient.
Young homeless people who are often invisible to the government—runaways, former foster children and victims of abuse—are routinely neglected in the census. Those who have aged out of the foster system are far more likely than other young adults to end up homeless or in jail, and far less likely to go to college or find employment. Once they turn 18, however, the government ceases to provide care. About 26,000 people age out of the foster care system each year and 31 percent of them spend some time sleeping in the streets or on friends’ couches.
The task of sheltering youths is not as simple as putting a roof over their heads. The best strategies for utilizing social services for homeless young people is often debated. They must not only ensure housing for teens and young adults, but also permanently keep them off the streets, and create opportunities for employment and overall health and well-being.
Young people tend to move in and out of the streets frequently, making them hard to count and even harder to aid. They often stay with friends or relatives for short intervals of time before returning to the city’s streets or to a shelter.
Adult shelters are usually less than ideal for those aged 18 to 20. Many of these youths are escaping family problems, whether running away from an abusive household or facing rejection because of sexual identity. Adult shelters do not provide the services that these youths frequently require. Youth shelters commonly offer counseling and family intervention, and are better equipped to find young people employment or further education. Although the government is reluctant to acknowledge it, those over 18 are often still in desperate need of such services.
Women are far more likely to become pregnant at a young age if they do not have reliable housing or income. Young women over the age of 18, however, receive little support from the government, even in the case of early pregnancy. At the same time, it is nearly impossible for them to find employment or seek further education.
While many homeless New Yorkers are hidden in plain sight, some inhabit spaces below the city itself. They use abandoned, interconnected sections of the subway and utility passages, creating ramshackle shelters from scrap metal, wood and plastic.
The Transit Authority report to the City Council stated that approximately 5,000 people live in the subways alone. A transit official who wishes to remain anonymous estimated that about 25,000 people live in the city’s underground tunnels in total. These individuals are rarely included in HOPE, and therefore the federal government does not allot sufficient funds to aid all of the city’s homeless.
New York City is not alone in its struggle to decrease homelessness. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is working to end homelessness throughout the city, which has suffered high rates of homelessness in the past several years.
Unity, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, is comprised of 63 organizations providing housing and services to the homeless, and conducts homeless outreach on the city’s streets and develops nonprofit-owned apartments buildings for people with little or no income.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development states that an individual is chronically homeless when they have a disability and have been homeless for more than a year and without a home at least four times in the past three years While there were about 4,579 chronically homeless people in New Orleans in 2009, the number decreased to 677 by 2013.
The Landrieu administration’s rapid response system secured permanent housing for every homeless veteran in New Orleans in less than 30 days, and the overall homelessness percentage steadily decreased simultaneously. Although New York City’s population is intimidatingly larger than that of New Orleans, following in Landrieu’s footsteps would undoubtedly decrease homelessness throughout the city.
The current system of calculating its homeless population is clearly inaccurate, and disproportionately jeopardizes young adults. New York cannot begin to help its homeless population, which comprises so much of the city, until it can acknowledge and accurately record correct statistics.