The results of the City’s controversial street homelessness survey are in: A 23 percent increase over last year. If you didn’t hear the news, it’s because the Bloomberg administration dumped the results in a 4:00 pm press release last Friday, a cynical maneuver to hide the bad news.
We’ve long been critical of the City’s seven-year-old HOPE street homelessness survey and the “estimate” of the street homeless population that the City touts each year. Among other things, there is overwhelming evidence that the survey misses enormous numbers of unsheltered homeless people, in particular those sleeping in non-visible locations. And there is little reason to believe that a comparison between a “guesstimate” based on a single night’s survey one winter and the next year’s single-night “guesstimate” has any genuine significance. You can find more analysis of the survey's many flaws here.
Nevertheless, even we were surprised by the blatant cynicism involved in the release of this year’s results, which reported a 23 percent increase in street homelessness over the last year’s estimate. The City, borrowing a page from an old episode of The West Wing called “Take Out the Trash Day,” sent out a press release at 4:04 pm last Friday afternoon, virtually assuring there would be no press coverage of the estimated increase in street homelessness. And to make matters even worse, the Department of Homeless Services didn’t even post the press release (PDF) on its own website until today!
The Coalition released the following statement in response to the City’s all-but-invisible press release:
“Today’s release of the City’s street homeless survey estimates a 23 percent increase in street homelessness from last year and confirms what we already know – there are more and more New Yorkers sleeping on the streets and in the subway system each night. Sadly, even this estimate understates the severity of the problem given that the City's survey consistently fails to count many unsheltered homeless people. More needs to be done to provide appropriate housing and services to the growing number of homeless New Yorkers – especially the record numbers of homeless children. Putting this data out at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon can’t obscure the reality of this situation."
--Patrick Markee, Senior Policy Analyst, Coalition for the Homeless
Sadly, the City’s cynical press maneuver had its intended effect. Only the Associated Press, DNAInfo, and the Huffington Post reported on the estimated street homelessness increase. And, as the New York Times reported back in 2010 – another year when the City estimated an increase in street homelessness – this is not the first time the Bloomberg administration has tried to hide the bad news. Indeed, the muted 2010 release was very different from the extravagant press announcement of the 2009 election year:
Last year, city officials said that the count revealed a 30 percent drop in the street homeless population since 2008, an announcement that was made at an elaborate news conference attended by volunteers, formerly homeless people and Linda I. Gibbs, the deputy mayor for health and human services, who spoke briefly.
This year’s event was quiet and spare by comparison. Ms. Gibbs’s commissioner, Mr. Hess, made the announcement in a conference room, seated at a long table.
The bottom line is that, no matter how much the City may try to hide the fact, much more needs to be done to provide permanent housing and vital services for the thousands of homeless New Yorkers who sleep every night on our streets and in our subway system.
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