A Night With the Homeless

“Being homeless is not an identity, but something people go through in their lives” said Jackie Bray, First Deputy Commissioner of The Department of Homeless Services, as she prepared volunteers for what would be a long night. The Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, called HOPE for short, took place the night of January 22nd. Across all five boroughs, 4,252 volunteers canvassed the streets, parks, and subway stations to gain an updated estimate of unsheltered individuals.

Volunteers were paired in groups of three to five, and from midnight to four a.m., each group canvased their three assigned grids, each consisting of about four square blocks. The rules required each group to walk up and down each sidewalk and ask each passing person if they need homeless services. For every person who identified as homeless, a survey was filled out and transportation to a shelter was offered. Volunteers were asked not to bother sleeping individuals, but instead to fill out the survey to completion with whatever visible information available.

Team 18, mapping out the evening/Erewa Uku for NYCityLens


My group took on Herald Square, a mostly white and affluent neighborhood in Midtown, famous for its shopping and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We encountered 35 homeless people in total. And in speaking to these individuals, an interesting trend surfaced almost immediately—they all refused the shelter services.

One man, who chose to remain anonymous, said “Shelters are very dangerous. I think walking the streets is safer than going there,” as he recounted a negative experience at Bellevue Men’s Shelter, on E 30th Street in Manhattan. That shelter has long had the reputation for violence and overcrowding with 850 beds. It serves as the main intake center for all of the city’s homeless men.

Sheltering issues have yet to improve. “Homeless people have never been a priority,” said another man without shelter, and the numbers appear to back up his claim. According to the Coalition for Homelessness, municipal shelters counted more than 129,803 homeless men, women, and children during the 2017 fiscal year. These numbers are some of the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Mayor DeBlasio was unable to deliver on a promise of 20 new shelters in 2017; instead he met half of the goal and opened 10.

“There’s a real income gap, and not enough affordable housing,” said Martha Calhoun, General Counsel for NYC’s Department of Social Services, and a fellow volunteer on the HOPE count that night. “Tonight we looked at people on the street. But we also have 60,000 people in the shelters, so it’s a problem.”

The Department of Homeless Services is trying something new this year, and believes that by building the city’s first-ever targeted name list of individuals known to be homeless, it will drive more effective outreach and build trustful relationships, leading to an acceptance of services that will eventually transition more homeless people off of the streets.

While canvassing, it was clear that some of the homeless people were affected by mental health issues—one of the main contributors to homelessness in the city. A Vietnam vet spoke about his inability to stay in shelters because of severe post traumatic stress disorder. “I have an appointment at the VA Hospital tomorrow, and I’m hoping they can help me out,” he said.

HOPE 2018 numbers will be announced later this year.




Volunteers training at the Department of Homeless Services/Erewa Uku, NYCityLens