New York City recently conducted its annual survey of the unsheltered homeless.
The count lasts all night and sends 1,500 volunteers to survey five boroughs.
Business Insider sent a reporter to participate in the process.
Shortly after 10 p.m. on a chilly Tuesday night in January, New York City's top officials gathered in an elementary school gymnasium in midtown Manhattan.
Mayor Eric Adams, flanked by officials from the Departments of Social Services and Homeless Services, kicked off the city's annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate. The city was about to send 1,500 volunteers to all five boroughs to collect data on the unsheltered homeless.
"We are not a city that can walk past people and ignore what our fellow New Yorkers are going through," Adams said. "There's something powerful about just four simple letters: HOPE."
Cities nationwide annually conduct a point-in-time homeless count overnight to get an idea of how many people live in unsheltered conditions. New York City has been keeping count this way since 2005.
Last year's results, announced in late June, tallied more than 4,000 people who were unsheltered on a single night in January 2023. This year's count is expected to be impacted by the influx of immigrants from the nation's southern border.
How New York counts its homeless population
After Adams left, outreach staffers trained the volunteers, myself among them, to conduct the surveys that asked whether respondents were sheltered or unsheltered and where they planned to sleep for the night.
After an hour of training, groups with half a dozen volunteers each disbanded to cover the whole city. We began at exactly midnight and were instructed to quit after we completely surveyed our assigned areas or the clock struck 4 a.m. — whichever came first.
The areas we were assigned were precise, from the street number down to which side of the street we were canvassing. Some teams were assigned subways and subway stations while others were above ground in the streets, parks, and other public areas. Depending on the area, teams needed police escorts. My team was given several blocks near Gramercy and Kips Bay in Manhattan, areas with low poverty rates; no such escort was needed.
It was a Code Blue night, meaning the outside temperature was freezing or near to it. In warmer conditions, volunteers would be instructed not to wake any sleeping homeless people so as not to disturb them. Given the Code Blue, we were instructed to wake them anyway and ask if they needed to be relocated to a shelter.
My team canvased for about two-and-a-half hours, tallying nearly a dozen homeless people. We had long conversations with some. Others did not want to answer questions. Some had language barriers. In order to speak with one couple, we phoned a translation service provided by the city and discovered the couple had been turned away from a women-only shelter nearby.
According to the city-provided information packet on shelters, a shelter should have been nearby that accepted families without children, which would have been ideal for this couple, who said they were married. We walked a few blocks with them, speaking with them through the translator over the phone as we tried to find the correct facility.
The address information was outdated, however, and the only nearby option was the womens-only shelter. The homeless woman said, via the translator, that she had already spent one night at that shelter and had been told she could sleep inside but wouldn't get a bed. In the end, she took up the offer, becoming separated from her husband with no way to stay in contact.
Later on, an older man hauling several canvas bags skirted questions about his sleeping arrangements. He told us he wouldn't want us to be in his position. He spoke at length about the rich elite hogging the world's resources while the majority of people beg for scraps. He told us to harness our youth and do good things in the world.
It was clear that not everyone trusted us. We were there on behalf of the city, after all. It was a reality the organizers warned we might face. We came across some people who declined to speak to us. One person declined to speak to us through the wall of their tent. Others crossed the street or just kept walking.
The evening was a stark reminder of the distinctions between the city's haves and have-nots and the challenges anyone who seeks to help will face.
Even minor obstacles — like communication barriers or distance to the nearest clean bed — can mute the impact of outreach and assistance.
"They don't have a home, but they're very connected to the community. And if we say, 'We know you're in Queens, but we've got a bed for you in the Bronx,' they're just not going to come," DSS Commissioner Molly Wasow Park told BI. "So by knowing where people are, being able to allocate resources according to the trends that we're seeing, we're really increasing the likelihood that people are going to come inside. And coming inside is the first step to permanent housing."
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