Hope the Helmless

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 30:  A man sits in a R1 Ne...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Two nights ago I responded to a request by NY Cares for New York City’s Department of Homeless Services’s (DHS) annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE). In groups of 2-6 we were to go out and count the number of homeless in the city, section by section, in the middle of the night.

The DHS has been operating these surveys for 7 years, and the outcome has mostly been to provide the Mayor’s office with an indicator of “progress” in clearing more and more people from the streets every year. Bloomberg has come under scruitiny for supporting housing trends that price out low-income residents, combining recently with the recession to create more homeless in the city than ever before. In response, the city government can point to the efforts of the DHS, their outreach and shelters. They are responsible for the ads on the subway featuring picturesque (white, clearly models) vagrants, and discouraging commuters from feeding the animals giving panhandlers money.


Before I slip into it too far, I’ll refrain from a Village Leftist kneejerk criticality, and look at the function of the volunteers and how this survey may benefit the underclass.

I signed up to work in Queens but wasn’t assigned a location there so went to DHS’s office in the Financial district and was assigned to group 23 with three other new volunteers. Our group, in the usual redundant committee manner, appointed the eldest member, who had a hybrid car from the city motor pool, as team leader. The DHS had an hour to inform a room full of warm sleepy do-gooders how to treat who we encountered and administer the one-page housing survey, with surprisingly little resistance created by stupidity on both sides. The most problematic parts of the distributed instruction book concerned the rare instances when we encountered someone who needed medical attention or wanted to go to a shelter. There were vans to call when we met the latter.

We were told to follow the letter of the survey itself, although it became more conversationalized in good practice. This was a few questions about whether we could ask, and what kind of place the subject lived in, followed by, if we judged them homeless, demographics like age, sex, ethnicity, and location. Our mostly didn’t notice the conditionality of the second set of observations. The most important question was, of course, #6: “Do you think this person is homeless?” I may get a bit Foucault here and note how emphatically the entire event approached the creation of a distinct “homeless” category, and required the volunteers to construct that class. We were to apply the survey to everyone we met, in the hopes of encountering someone who broke type, but this only reinforced the distinction. During the training hour, it was, whether the volunteers realized it or not, the responsibility of determining homelessness on sight, regardless of what the subject said, that volunteers had the most trouble with. We were to base this on stereotypical signs of vagrancy: “disheveled appearance”, a cart full of belongings. My great aunt would have been judged homeless, 7 years ago. The example we ran through in training was of someone who “stayed with a friend” but who was supposed to clearly fit in the homeless category. We did run into someone like this, who may have previously been in rehab or jail or simply priced out, and I felt the interviewer led his answers toward not being homeless, in assumption.

We had two 2-3 block areas to walk on a predetermined path, and were to talk to everyone we encountered who wasn’t clearly working or asleep. For the first time this year, some groups were assigned police escorts, and we were one. I don’t know what about this area made it the recipient of this experiment. The cops were the youngest of the group, and cute, but their presence probably hindered our accuracy as well as our confidence.

Decoys were supposedly stationed in each area. If they were supposed to tell us they were decoys, we encountered none. Our area was a Lower East Side sub-bridge residential wasteland, too windy and open and probably full of available couches for good urban camping, but low-traffic enough that we found at least five more places we’d expect people to be sleeping than we found such people. In fact, we only found one clearly homeless, in a grocery loading dock with several other pallets that indicated that on other nights he had company. The cops spotted his cart parked outside, and we were all so excited to have found him that we probably disturbed his sleep. Although I was to fill out the form, I felt enough of us had already ogled him that I left it to others to enter a physical description.

We interviewed nine others, on the street at 1 am, who lived nearby or were waliing. Their answers were confidential, but about half didn’t have the time to answer any questions at all, which was easier. We did interrupt a cab-based dispute and almost accidentally interviewed a cabbie. Some were glad to chat local government, this being the LES. One, who had been caught by another group earlier, noted that it was “a weird night – a lot of regular people but not a lot of homeless people”. It was wet and warm for January. I felt I saw more people sleeping in the subways than usual, coming home.

I suspect that the call for volunteers made the survey event known to the city’s homeless even more than in previous years, even if just as a rumor. I suspect many of them broke routine, sought public or private shelter, or stayed mobile that night, simply out of a paranoia about conspicuousness. Many may be very conscious that not being counted means Bloomberg can claim DHS’s outreach and shelters a success, or that funding for DHS, and the nosy outreach program with its anti-panhandling message, would be reduced.

I can’t judge whether DHS is good or bad for the homeless, because they are not a consistent category for whom the same strategy works as a whole. I believe it is very good for those who do often need shelter, regardless of the violence that sometimes occurs in the shelters (and would probably happen anyway). I don’t think the ads have significantly discouraged panhandling’s supply side. (By the way, those guys with the sandwiches are scam artists.) Unlike DHS, I don’t think the city’s goal should be to get everyone living in public (or in ATMs or on the subway, etc.) into an apartment with a job. There is simply nowhere for that money to come from. Naturally, getting those with mental health problems into care is important, and they’re doing well reducing starvation or death from exposure. But the opportunity to choose against one’s supposed interests is also important. A program that has the best interests of the homeless in mind would not discourage squatters (the DHS is mostly silent on this issue), although at present I’m pretty sure there isn’t a huge squatting movement, likely because private property owners are preventing it.

While I know that everyone working for the DHS, and the volunteers, mean well, I don’t think they realized how much their efforts this year led to undercounting. I’m not a sociologist or a statistician – please provide input if you are. I also don’t know whether the undercounting will be celebrated by the city or mean budget cuts for DHS or both. If the latter, Operation Scare Off the Homeless, with this year’s increased publicity, budget, and workforce, probably did more harm than good, despite goodly intentions of census-like objectivity. Because I like information, I hope I’m wrong. Comment from a friend who introduced me to NY Cares:

I was out there too this year, and wow, the stupidity amazed me, from the cop who insisted that people would be “camping out” under the trees in the park because it was warm (uh, not actually, because it was so muddy) to the inability of my fellow volunteers to understand how to approach a person or how to fill out the bubbles on the one-page survey. Also, there was a fair amount of Junior League-style condescension that I wanted to slap out of a couple of my fellow volunteers. (I was actually stuck in a group of 7 for most of the night, by the way, until the team leader finally consented to have 3 of us split off.) Did you get anyone picked up by the vans, and how long did you have to wait? We had to wait over an hour. The guys doubted that the van was actually coming. I agree that the cops probably set the wrong tone for both the volunteers and the interviewees. Apparently, there were cops last year as well, however. I also don’t know what good this did. One major problem is that the survey is really only counting street homelessness – a huge number of people/families are couch-surfing or sleeping on floors because they were priced out of housing. (How many? Yeah, exactly.) We ask people in the streets if they have a place to sleep, so we can count “staying with a friend” as homeless, but if they are staying with a friend, they’re probably home asleep at 2am, not milling about waiting to be asked for their status. We’re really only counting “nuisance homeless”. The visibly homeless. You’re right about the visibility of the night – a teenage girl was hanging out on 125th St, at 3am, with her homeless uncle, hoping that a team would come by and offer her uncle housing. So, of course we shipped him off in the van, but the van just took him to Bellevue, the giant processing center on 30th and 1st Ave, which many people refused to go to. We have no way of knowing what actually happened to anyone who was shipped off, or how they were treated. I also wonder how, on this night, the city can claim to have room for anyone who asks. Did people get kicked out of shelters or moved to more remote ones in the weeks before this? How long will the people we put in Monday night be allowed to stay? What’s going to happen to these guys six months from now? Etc. etc.

I didn’t trust many of these volunteers for the reasons she mentioned – ignorant and incompetent, but condescending and self important, compounded by the LCD effect of groups. I agree that the main change the survey was trying to make was aesthetic, implying that the problem is visibility, not the underlying economic causes. As I said, our neighborhood was mostly abandoned, and the buildings around us may have been full of couch-surfers.

I didn’t realize they’d had police escorts last year, as well.

Even a group of four with two cops was too big. Two people is perfect. We had two people approach surveyees and the rest of us hung back ominously. I felt it was important not to pressure those we found to go to a shelter because I knew it would just make their night worse (like the girl and her uncle you found who ended up being shuffled around for hours, if not months).

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