Undercounting the Homeless Redux

Tonight the City of New York will send volunteers out to “count” homeless people on the streets and in subways – a flawed effort that, year after year, has resulted in a significant undercount of New York City’s homeless population.

Coalition for the Homeless has long criticized the HOPE survey’s flawed methodology, which fails to accurately measure New York City’s unsheltered homeless population. We’ve also been critical of the Bloomberg administration’s insistence on making the annual survey a PR extravaganza, complete with TV news crews following volunteers and, later on, a typically high-profile press conference to announce a claimed reduction in street homelessness. (Although last year, as the New York Times noted, when the HOPE “estimate” produced a dramatic 34 percent increase in the unsheltered homeless population, the administration held a low-key event in a conference room without the Mayor or top officials.)

And nothing should obscure the fact that the large majority of NYC’s homeless population resides in shelters – indeed, more than 38,000 homeless New Yorkers currently bed down each night in the municipal shelter system, including 16,000 children.

We’ve detailed the reasons that the HOPE survey is fatally flawed in a briefing paper, which is available here. The main reasons are the following:

• The HOPE survey is an estimate, not a count – a fact that the City’s public relations strategy obscures.

• The City has refused to reveal how many homeless people are actually counted.

• The survey fails to count homeless people in non-visible locations.

• The survey has failed to adjust for survey error.

• Changing weather and other conditions make it impossible to compare one HOPE estimate with another.

• The City’s claim that homelessness decreased in 2009, during the first year of the recession (and not so coincidentally, a NYC election year), is simply not credible.

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