The most common question asked about New York City’s homelessness crisis is, “How many people are homeless in our city?”
Reporters commonly rely on the shelter census figures published on the Coalition for the Homeless website, which serve as reliable longitudinal metrics for measuring the dynamics of the crisis, but do not encompass the full scope of homelessness in New York City.
The number of those sleeping unsheltered is particularly challenging to ascertain, and the annual HOPE survey significantly understates the true size of this population.
The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) estimated that there were 4,042 unsheltered New Yorkers on January 24, 2023, but the HOPE methodology is deeply flawed and the actual number is clearly much larger.
For example, from May 2020 to January 2022, 9,231 unique individuals accepted offers of transportation to various types of shelters and drop-in centers during end-of-line subway outreach. Given that this is only those homeless individuals who spoke to outreach teams in end-of-line subway stations, and of those, only the fraction who accepted offers of transportation to indoor accommodations, this figure suggests there is likely a much larger unsheltered population than is estimated in the City’s annual point-in-time HOPE reports.
Other New Yorkers who are similarly difficult to enumerate include those staying in illegal or very precarious housing, or sleeping in cars or other makeshift arrangements. For many people, blending in and avoiding detection are essential survival techniques.
Determining the total number of people sleeping in NYC shelters also poses challenges. The Coalition’s charts reflect:
These data are pulled from monthly reports published pursuant to Local Law 37 of 2011. Analyzing the DHS shelter census over time is useful because, unlike the other shelter systems, the DHS system expands as the need for shelters rises because of the legal right to shelter in New York City secured by the Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society. Furthermore, the Coalition has been tracking these data in a consistent way for 40 years, facilitating analysis of the crisis over time.
But other City agencies also operate or fund shelters. For example:
Based on a point-in-time count submitted to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 65,975 people sleeping in shelters in New York City on a single night in January 2021.
Also notable is that the number of unique individuals utilizing each system over the course of a year is much higher, and gives a more complete view of the scope of mass homelessness in our city. For example, over the course of Fiscal Year 2021, 107,510 different homeless adults and children slept in the DHS shelter system alone.
People who sleep doubled-up with family or friends are not counted by most government agencies, partly due to varying definitions of homelessness. The Department of Education is one of the few entities that counts doubled-up households.
During the 2020-21 school year, more than 101,000 New York City students were identified as homeless, including 28,000 sleeping in shelters and more than 65,000 who were doubled-up.
These staggering statistics suggest that there are many more families and individuals who are members of doubled-up households and remain uncounted in official estimates of homelessness by other agencies.
What is certain, however, is that the lack of affordable housing in our city has devastating consequences for the lives of hundreds of thousands of our neighbors, and those we see on the streets and in the subways, or count in the shelters on any given night, represent a mere fraction of those impacted by this ongoing tragedy.
See also: The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Homeless Definition.