The city started counting the local unsheltered population this week for the annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) Survey. But homeless advocates—like Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Dave Giffen and Vocal-NY Housing Campaign Coordinator Joe Loonam—aren’t counting on much with the results.

“There’s no complete sense of how many folks are where they’re at,” said Loonam. “Ultimately, what the city will discover is that the vast majority of housing-insecure people are still relying on their families and neighbors and that the city has not built a social service apparatus that many people want to engage with at all.”

“The federal government mandates that municipalities provide an annual point-in-time count of the number of unsheltered and sheltered homeless persons, and that’s used for allocation of federal funds, etc.,” said Giffen, “so it does have some input and the city is mandated to conduct this count, but it really doesn’t have a lot of practical value in terms of understanding the number of people who are without homes in New York City.”

For starters, the estimate—Giffen is careful not to call the survey a “count”—only includes those living on the streets and other public spaces, so conducting the tallies during the harsh New York City winter means fewer people get counted. The estimate also excludes those living in shelters, doubled-up situations, and illegal or unsafe housing situations, which are likely to make up a majority of New York City’s unhoused population. The survey is limited to just once a year, ignoring the dynamic nature of street homelessness, especially in the summer months when counts are likely the highest.

Then there’s the matter of who is surveying the unhoused. The advocates point out the brunt of the estimate comes through the footwork of short-term volunteers. According to the HOPE Survey website, they’re trained through online videos and a webinar the night before the tallies. 

“The more you do a thing, the more you have an opportunity to develop people who are good at it,” said Loonam. “If you limit a count to once a year [and] you run it on a volunteer basis in large part, you’re never giving people an opportunity to learn the skills that would be really, really good to have if you wanted to get a real, accurate account.”

There will be 14 HOPE Survey volunteer sites, although all four Manhattan-based locations are south of 70th Street. Teams of two to four will be mobilized around midnight to canvass for estimated numbers. The data is collected through a mobile app. Any unhoused person encountered will be offered transportation to a shelter. 

Giffen added that the city’s recent efforts to expel the unhoused from public spaces through subway removals and involuntary mental health hospitalizations are likely to further influence unsheltered New Yorkers to not be seen. 

Little is known about whether the recent influx of migrants to New York City will affect this year’s counts.

Last year, the HOPE Survey found 3,439 unsheltered New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. But in the same year, the New York State Department of Education found roughly 5,500 unsheltered students in New York City—in total, more than 104,000 local youngsters were experiencing homelessness, and those estimates only count youth enrolled in New York City schools. Giffen also mentioned disparities between the HOPE Survey and the number of shelter referrals accepted during the pandemic shutdown.

“When the governor closed down the subway system in May of 2020, when the pandemic first hit, the city started doing outreach at end-of-the-line subway stations,” said Giffen. “There were more than 9,000 people in those end-of-line stations who accepted referrals to shelters. So think about that. That’s just a handful of subway stations … Then, of the people who might be in the subway at those stations, it’s only those who agreed to speak with outreach workers [who are counted]. And of those, it’s only those [who] agreed to a referral to a shelter. And that number was more than 9,000 unique individuals. 

“That tells me that there are a lot of people over the course of the year [who] are ending up out in unsheltered situations of living out in public places [and] are cycling in and out of homelessness or newly homeless or returning to the streets after having been in a shelter or in some other makeshift situation. The number of [3,439]—the last HOPE estimate—what does that tell you? It really doesn’t tell you a goddamn thing.”

US homeless numbers stay about the same as before pandemic

The city thinks last year’s count indicates a decrease in unsheltered individuals, credited to its unique legal right-to-shelter guideline. Mayor Eric Adams called the HOPE Survey “an important tool in our ever-growing toolbox to end homelessness.” Giffen hopes HOPE will one day truly become such a tool. 

“We want to see the day when the Coalition for the Homeless is going out of business. That’s the count we’re looking for—the count that allows us to shut our doors,” he said. “But the fact that we have, tonight, close to 70,000 people in the shelter system, and that you can’t walk down the street without seeing people who are very clearly in need of permanent housing and healthcare and mental healthcare and food and clothing—that’s really all you need to know.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting

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