Why the rise in NYC's homeless population?

written by naehblog
March 29, 2010

In January, New York City counted 3,111 people experiencing homelessness. That’s 783 more – or 30 percent more – than last year’s count.

Some background: In 2005, New York City conducted their first Homeless Outreach Population Estimate – known popularly as their HOPE count. That year, the city counted 48,155 homeless people.

In 2006, that number shot up to 55,507 – but has decreased steadily since then. New York City took some innovative strides to help the residents of their city experiencing homelessness, including implementing a unique “right to shelter” mandate, offering all homeless residents a place to sleep. As of 2008, the city’s homeless population was at 50,261.

Could the increase be the result of difficult economic conditions? That’s what Robert Hess, NYC Homeless Services Commissioner, suggested at a press conference last week, but we’ll know more when other cities share their information and we’re able to compare and contrast the increases and decreases in homeless populations nationwide.

Some other groups in NYC think the increase has less to do with the economic climate and more to do to with city policy. The Coalition for the Homeless wrote on their blog this week:

“Overall, these newly released numbers continue to add to the crisis of homelessness in New York City. The numbers show that DHS’s decision to close 6 drop-in centers over the past year has been a complete disaster for the street homeless population, who continue to need specialized services.”

A couple of other important factors to consider:

• The rate of homelessness in NYC is actually pretty low compared to other cities. According to the New York Times, there is one homeless person for every 2,688 people in the general New York population, compared with 1 in 154 for Los Angeles, 1 in 1,810 for Chicago and 1 in 1,844 for Washington.

• The 3,111 figure we started with is the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. There are also 38,000 people living in the city shelter system.

• NYC uses a unique methodology for their HOPE count that utilizes decoys in order to estimate how many people aren’t counted.

New York’s numbers illustrate the incredible difficulty in understanding – and, in turn, assisting – the homeless population in the country. Such a wide variety of variables – from the economy to geography to transportation – factor into these data collection efforts. The situation in New York does emphasize the need for more and better information about homelessness and remind us to keep vigilant in our own efforts to end homelessness for all.