The City’s Missing 2,000 Homeless People

Currently there are more than 39,000 homeless men, women, and children sleeping each night in New York City municipal shelters, an all-time record.  And during the past year the number of homeless families and single adults in shelters increased significantly.

But if you visit the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS) website, or read the Mayor’s Management Report, you’ll be told a different story.

At this very moment the DHS website says, right there on its home page, that there are around 37,000 homeless people in municipal shelters.  And the recently-released Mayor’s Management Report said that the number of homeless single adults in the shelter system actually declined between FY 2008 and FY 2009.

How can this be?  And what happened to those 2,000 missing homeless people?

Well, simply put, DHS does not accurately report to the public the true, complete number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping in municipal shelters.  Indeed, DHS routinely fails to report on the roughly 2,000 homeless children and adults sleeping each night in around a dozen municipal shelters.  (See below for a detailed explanation.)

For a mayor and an administration that claim to value data and say they base their policy decisions on hard statistics and research, this seems like a glaring problem. Indeed, similar concerns were expressed after reports about the alleged inaccuracy of crime statistics. As the New York Times reported:

“Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an engineering major in college, has never been shy about proclaiming an unerring faith in statistics….

“‘I’m a great believer in the wisdom I learned in my first Wall Street job: In God we trust,’ he said at a philanthropy conference in Atlanta last May. ‘Everyone else, bring data.’”

Well, now it’s time for Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Homeless Services to “bring the data.”

Today Coalition for the Homeless wrote to Mayor Bloomberg and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.  We asked them to ensure that New York City residents are given accurate, complete information about homelessness and municipal shelters.  The text of our letter is below and you can download a copy of the letter here.

February 25, 2010Hon. Michael Bloomberg
Mayor, City of New York
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Hon. Christine Quinn
Speaker, New York City Council
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Re: Failure of the NYC Department of Homeless Services to report accurate data about homelessness in New York City

Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn,

We write to express concern about the NYC Department of Homeless Services’ continuing failure to report accurate data about homelessness in New York City, in particular the number of homeless people residing in municipal shelters.

As you know, it is vitally important that municipal government agencies report accurate, complete information to New York City residents about major public policy issues like homelessness. The City of New York’s agency websites and the City Charter-mandated Mayor’s Management Report are two prominent examples of the City’s means of communicating vital information to students, the news media, researchers, policymakers, as well as to the general public. And the City has an obligation to ensure that this information is accurate, complete, and free of error.

It is therefore troubling that the City has failed to meet this obligation with regards to information about homelessness. Indeed, in recent years the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has excluded important data about homelessness in New York City from its website and its publicly-available reports, including the Mayor’s Management Report. These incomplete reports create the false impression that the homeless shelter population in New York City is smaller than it actually is.

The following examples illustrate how DHS provides incomplete, misleading data to New York City residents.

1. Inaccurate data reported on the DHS website:

Earlier this winter the DHS website reported that, on the night of January 29, 2010, there were 37,457 “total individuals” residing in municipal shelters (see copy of DHS “Daily Report” for that date enclosed). This figure included 15,839 children and 7,373 single adults.

However, DHS reports obtained by Coalition for the Homeless – reports which are not made available to the general public and which are not posted on DHS’s website – report a significantly larger shelter population. (See copies of these reports enclosed.)

For the night of January 31, 2010 – only two nights after the DHS website’s report – the total shelter population was actually at least 39,256 people. This more comprehensive and accurate figure includes 16,346 children and 8,153 single adults. (Unfortunately a direct comparison between both dates is impossible because DHS does not post a “Daily Report” on its website for every day and does not archive past reports.)

Why is shelter census reported on DHS’s website nearly 2,000 people lower than the more comprehensive figure included in non-public DHS reports? This is because the DHS website routinely excludes data about more than a dozen municipal homeless shelters and their residents. The excluded shelters include “safe haven” shelters for long-term street homeless individuals; shelters for homeless veterans; and shelters for homeless families administered by the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). (Note that data about HPD shelters has been included in every homeless family census report issued by the City since the 1980s.)

On January 31st, for instance, there were 361 homeless people residing in “safe haven” shelters, 375 homeless people in veterans shelters, and 200 homeless families (with 432 children and 421 adults) in HPD shelters. In addition, DHS administers another group of shelters for homeless single adults, called “stabilization beds,” whose data has never been publicly reported, meaning that the actual number of homeless people in municipal shelters is even larger than what is discussed here.

Thus, when the general public, news media, and policymakers visit the DHS website they are falsely informed – even on the site’s home page – that the municipal homeless shelter population is nearly 2,000 people smaller than it actually is. This is the reason why the New York Times and other news organizations have in recent years reported a smaller homeless shelter population than the true number, thus misinforming New Yorkers about the genuine scale of the homeless population in New York City.

2. Inaccurate data in the Mayor’s Management Report:

The City Charter-mandated Mayor’s Management Report (MMR) also includes incomplete, misleading data about the size of the homeless shelter population.

For example, the recently released preliminary MMR for FY 2010 reports that the “average number of single adults in shelter each day” in FY 2008 was 6,737 people and in FY 2009 was 6,526 people, suggesting that the average number of homeless single adults in shelter each night declined by 3.1 percent during that period.

However, like the DHS website, the MMR does not include data for homeless single adults residing in City-administered “safe haven” shelters and veterans shelters. In fact, when data for these shelters is included, the average number of homeless single adults in FY 2008 was 6,850 people and in FY 2009 was 7,078 people. Thus, the average number of homeless adults residing in municipal shelters actually increased by 3.3 percent during that period.

The arbitrary exclusion of data about “safe haven” shelters and veterans shelters is particularly troubling because many of those facilities are actually longstanding municipal shelters for adults that have merely been given a different label and, in some instances, a different service model – and are actually included in past MMR data, thus distorting the historical accuracy and comparability of the City’s data. In recent years DHS officials have repeatedly spoken to the news media and at City Council hearings about both “safe haven” and veterans shelters, making their exclusion from the MMR even more puzzling. In addition, as noted above DHS administers another group of shelters for homeless single adults, called “stabilization beds,” whose data has never been publicly reported, meaning that the actual number of homeless single adults in municipal shelters is even larger than the figure cited above.

The Bloomberg administration and the City Council have both, on many occasions, lauded the value of basing public policy on data and research, and the importance of measuring the results of City policies and practices. We agree strongly with these principles. And we believe that it does a disservice to New York City residents to provide them with misleading information about major problems like homelessness.

Thus, we urge you to act immediately to ensure that, in the future, the Department of Homeless Services reports accurate, complete data about the homeless population in New York City. In addition, we urge you to ensure that DHS corrects the incomplete, inaccurate data still published on its website and in past Mayor’s Management Reports.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. And, as always, we look forward to working with you in the coming months and years to reduce the homeless population in New York City.

Sincerely,

Mary Brosnahan
Executive Director
Coalition for the Homeless

Patrick Markee
Senior Policy Analyst
Coalition for the Homeless

cc:  Hon. Bill de Blasio, NYC Public Advocate
Hon. John Liu, NYC Comptroller
Hon. Annabel Palma, New York City Council, Chair, General Welfare Committee