Counting Our Homeless – An Annual Controversy
Each year, in the dead of winter, the Department of Homeless Services sends volunteers – as many as 2,000- to less-than-scenic neighborhoods around the city to do a hand-count of the city’s homeless population. This year’s survey, on January 28, 2013, will require 3,000 volunteers, and they are currently recruiting. If you’re interested in issues of homelessness in Greenpoint, I highly recommend volunteering if only to get a glimpse at the internal workings of the city’s homeless outreach machinery.
The controversy over these counts largely concerns the timing of the survey and where volunteers are looking. It is intentionally conducted late at night at the end of January, an unpleasant time to be on the street, and specifically skips pseudo-private locations favored by the homeless such as ATM vestibules. Groups such as Coalition for the Homeless believe that the result is “a flawed effort that, year after year, has resulted in a significant undercount of New York City’s homeless population.” The implication is clear: the survey undercounts by design, masking the problem. However, according to the survey’s designers, it is intended to provide a street-level estimate of those individuals who are truly homeless, those who do not even make it to shelters on one of the coldest nights of the year, and thus expects a smaller number to be found.
To their credit, DHS does an excellent job of creating a methodology that answers their primary question without being too perplexing to the relatively untrained surveyors. However, while I was performing the survey, there was still a significant amount of deviation from the method on the part of my fellow volunteers. Their directions call for each group to make one pass along each side of each street in a given area, administering a short survey to anyone encountered. However, my group found it impossible to resist the temptation to call across the street to passers-by, for example- while this was done in the spirit of making the count as inclusive as possible, it undermined its accuracy as a statistical sample by effectively surveying areas twice. Opponents of these surveys also include the variability introduced by these sorts of errors and the failure to adjust counts accordingly among their complaints.
Still, especially now that homelessness has become a major local issue, I think the experience of participating in the survey is valuable even if the data generated is more questionable. You can review the informational materials and sign up here: 2013 HOPE homelessness survey