You see them every day. At the corner of the block. On the subway. Camped out in the park. New York City is host to many, many homeless people, over 62,000 in December 2016 – the most since the Great Depression nearly one hundred years ago.
A range of non-profit and government agencies, led by the New York Department of Homeless Services (DHS), are working to rein in this epidemic. But solutions to the problem are only as good as the data that informs them. Without understanding the reasons why individuals end up on the streets, and why they may not be accessing existing aid programs, the city cannot tailor services to help them.
Enter the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), an annual count of the number of individuals living in New York’s public spaces. Each year, the New York DHS recruits thousands of volunteers and sends them out in teams to survey New York’s streets, subways, and parks to gather a snapshot estimate of the number of unsheltered people. The data is used to estimate project service needs and allocate resources to the homeless population, as well as educate everyday New Yorkers on the homelessness crisis.
HOPE is only possible thanks to the generosity of ordinary citizens, who work through a cold February night – a weeknight, no less – to complete the count. This year marked the twelfth anniversary of HOPE, and Caitlin Smith, a 28-year-old nanny from Brooklyn, and Community Outreach Director at the Manhattan Young Democrats (MYD), (above picture, center) was among the volunteers.
“Personally I have a vested interest in that I taught in a public school for three years and the majority of my students were either homeless or living in unstable conditions. I worked a lot with the social worker in our school and different people in the shelters as well as their parents. For three years I had an up close and personal look [at homelessness] and tried to do a lot on an individual level with my students. That’s how I became interested in the larger system and how the city works on this issue,” she says.
Smith signed up around a dozen HOPE volunteers through MYD and worked with a small group of them across a four block area between 23rd Street and Second Avenue.
“The idea is to work within that one specific district talking to people on the streets to find out who they are,” she explains.
The volunteers are trained before hitting the streets to get as much information from the unsheltered people they meet as possible and learn why they may or may not be using existing services.
“It was interesting as there was a lot of people congregating near services but not utilising those services. Some people wanted to get in [to shelters] but didn’t qualify for one reason or another, or their preferred shelter was full. At this particular shelter we were in front of, people had come from a different shelter they had left because they felt it was unsafe,” explains Smith.
The reasons why homeless people decline to stay in city shelters vary. Sometimes an individual will have a personal problem with another lodger, other times a shelter gets a bad reputation that’s passed on by word of mouth. The New York Daily News revealed in a 2016 study that the levels of violence within shelters was discouraging a number of homeless people from using them.
Smith says responses to the HOPE volunteers on the night varied too. While some were “very happy” to chat about their situation, others were reluctant to give away any information and didn’t want to be recorded by DHS.
To those who imagine living on the streets is a hardship like no other, it can be hard to understand why anyone would refuse help. Yet homelessness is complicated and mistrust of services among unsheltered populations has deep roots.
Smith says HOPE can reshape New Yorkers’ perceptions of homelessness and cast off people’s reluctance to interact with those living on the streets beyond the annual count.
“People have this image of homeless people, but all of my students, and the many people I interacted with that night do not fit that bill. People can be without a home for a number of reasons, and many of them are not the most vocal. So we have this image of the man yelling on the train, but there’s also this massive community of people who are just trying to figure out what to do and are looking for help and are excited to have the conversation so I wouldn’t be intimidated working with these populations.”