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.


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

Unhinged from Reality: Mayor Bloomberg Defends His Shelter Denial Plan

The premise behind Mayor Bloomberg’s shelter denial plan — which was fortunately blocked by a New York State Supreme Court ruling this week — has always been more than a little far-fetched and absurd.

Since November, Bloomberg administration officials have struggled to sell the fantastical notion that New Yorkers with genuine, viable housing options are rushing en masse to the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, the Bedford-Atlantic Armory, the 1,000-bed Wards Island shelter complex, and similar warehouse-style facilities in order to sleep on metal cots and thin mattresses constructed by prison labor, in dormitories with upwards of 100 homeless adults in rows of identical cots three feet apart. And that these New Yorkers will spend months in the municipal shelter system, living in the same grim institutional conditions and eating the same grim institutional food, all while they actually have other housing available to them.

Indeed, City officials claim that between 10 percent and 60 percent of all homeless single adults — roughly 2,000 to 12,000 people each year — actually fall into this ridiculous, absurd category of New Yorkers bedding down in municipal shelters instead of in their own homes. That’s why, the officials say, the City needs new bureaucratic rules to ferret out what the New York Post editorial board — echoing (and amplifying) in time-tested fashion the administration’s rhetoric on its punitive homeless policies — characteristically called “fraudsters.”

One might have hoped that, in the wake of Tuesday’s court ruling (PDF) — as well as the near-universal opposition to the proposed shelter denial rules from the New York City Council, other local elected officials, homeless service providers, community groups, and advocates — that the administration would re-think its misguided “adult shelter eligibility rules.”

Sadly, however, in response to the court ruling Mayor Bloomberg actually doubled down on the fantastical and absurd rhetoric underlying his shelter denial plan. As Capital New York reported:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacted strongly to the ruling, defending the city’s proposed policy change.

“The law requires that we provide shelter,” said the mayor. “But you cannot say, ‘I’m tired of paying my rent, therefore the taxpayers of New York City should just pay my rent,’ OK? That’s not reasonable.”  [Emphasis added.]

According to NY1 News, the Mayor then went on to attack the courts — and even to cloak his attack on the judiciary in the shroud of patriotism…!

“…I think we should do it now and we’re going to do everything we can to have the ability to do it or let the judges explain to the public why they think that you should just have a right to walk in and say, ‘Whether or not I need services, give it to me.’ I don’t think that’s what this country’s all about,” said Bloomberg.  [Emphasis added.]

Of course, the proposed “adult shelter eligibility rules” (PDF) have never really been about determining if shelter applicants have genuine, available, suitable housing alternatives. The rules are really about creating bureaucratic tools to deny emergency shelter to people who are genuinely homeless. In fact, NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond essentially admitted as much at a November emergency City Council hearing, where he addressed the hypothetical, though commonplace, scenario of a homeless man who had once lived with his brother. Under the new rules, Diamond said, the City would deny shelter to the homeless man EVEN IF the brother refused to accept him in his home – and EVEN IF the brother changed the locks on his door!

And this is only one blunt example of how the “eligibility rules” are designed to close the shelter door to thousands of homeless New Yorkers. As we explained in testimony at the same November hearing, under the rules homeless people would be denied shelter:

• Even when a family member with whom the homeless person lived in the past states verbally and in writing that the person can no longer live in their home;

• Even when an outreach worker or police officer escorts the homeless person to an intake shelter but the Department claims the person has “not cooperated” with an eligibility investigation;

• Even when the homeless person is unable to provide a complete one-year “housing history”;

• Even when the homeless person attempts to document his or her one-year housing history, but the family or friend with whom s/he resided refuses to cooperate with the Department’s eligibility investigation;

• Even when the homeless person, who may suffer from a mental or physical impairment, fails to undergo an evaluation for such an impairment;

• Even when the Department claims that the homeless person’s other “housing option” is another person’s public housing apartment (or some other subsidized housing) and the homeless person’s residency jeopardizes the primary tenant’s subsidized housing;

• Even when DHS investigators have never visited an alleged “housing option” to see if it is actually available and/or suitable to meet the needs of the homeless person;

• Even when the homeless person is unable to produce documentation of their income or past housing history;

• Even when DHS makes a mistake in determining the homeless person’s eligibility for shelter but the homeless person cannot re-apply for shelter because s/he cannot produce “new evidence”; and

• Even when the “housing option” identified by DHS is unsafe but the homeless person has allegedly failed to provide evidence of the safety hazards.

There’s no question that, Mayor Bloomberg’s fantastical rhetoric aside, his shelter denial plan represents the gravest threat in more than a decade to the legal right to shelter for homeless New Yorkers. That’s why Tuesday’s court ruling is so important. And it’s why Coalition for the Homeless and our allies will continue to fight this misguided, dangerous plan.


Bloomberg’s Revised Housing Plan: Still Shortchanging the Homeless

Today Mayor Bloomberg announced revisions to his ten-year housing plan, but one thing wasn’t revised:  The plan still shortchanges homeless New Yorkers.

As the New York Times reported, the revised “New Housing Marketplace Plan” will seek to preserve more affordable housing units and build fewer, which will mean, in all likelihood, more assisted units going to lower-income New Yorkers:

“The city plans to ensure that an additional 32,000 units stay affordable for the next 30 years or so, protecting vulnerable lower-income New Yorkers from the next housing boom. In 2005, the city said it would build 92,000 units and preserve 73,000 by 2014. Now, it expects to build 60,000 and preserve 105,000….

“‘We’ve always advocated for more preservation because it costs less, and because preserving apartments typically makes them more available to lower-income households than new construction,’ said Tom Waters, a housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, an advocacy group for the poor.”

However, while the shift in goals is welcome news, there’s still no question that — at a time of all-time record homelessness — the Bloomberg plan shortchanges those New Yorkers most in need of affordable housing:  homeless families and individuals.

A useful contrast is Mayor Koch’s “Housing New York” plan, a ten-year plan launched in the 1980s when the city’s homeless shelter population was still well below 30,000 people per night.  (During the past decade there have never been fewer than 30,000 homeless people in municipal shelters each night, and now there are more than 39,000 people, including 16,000 children, bedding down in the shelter system.)

According to an analysis by the New School University’s Alex Schwartz, the Koch plan rehabilitated or built 150,682 affordable homes over ten years, and 15,007 of those apartments — fully ten percent of the entire plan — went to homeless families and individuals.  This was one of the major reasons that family homelessness declined dramatically in the late 1980s.

The Bloomberg plan, however, targets only 4 percent of its 165,000 housing units to homeless New Yorkers — at a time of record homelessness.  And, as the Times reported last year, New York City has still lost tens of thousands of affordable apartments despite the efforts of the Mayor’s plan.

In response to the Mayor’s announcement today, the Housing First! coalition called on the Mayor to change the plan and to ensure that at least 10 percent of all housing units assisted by the City are set aside for homeless people.   We think that’s the least the City can do to assist New Yorkers with the greatest housing needs.

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