Bum Wrap

On the night of the city's homeless census, street people count

The team turns right on 47th as it starts to flurry. Two Belgian tourists say they aren't homeless but point to a sleeping guy who is. There's no one at all on 48th Street, nor on 49th, where the search ends. It's 1:32. In the 55 minutes it takes for Group G to walk its route, the women encounter 38 people.

Three are homeless. None were "decoys."

Street sleepers by day
photo: Jake Price
Street sleepers by day

For the second year in a row, a quality assurance project is dispatching decoys dressed like homeless people who test whether the census teams are doing a thorough job. If the decoys aren't picked up by the census, the final number is adjusted to estimate the number of real homeless people who were also missed.

One of the "shadow count" bases is on 107th between Broadway and Amsterdam, where the teams of $100-a-night decoys are still trickling in at around 2:30 a.m. Some really go all-out with the wardrobe: The prize for best effort goes to a girl with untied work boots and a yellow caution tape as a belt. There's an element of cat and mouse to the decoy game: An e-mail from the Homeless Services "command center" says that census takers were able to pick out decoys by the plastic bags they all seemed to carry or wear.

Columbia grad students Jonathan Newton and Johanna Creswell, however, weren't picked up by the survey. "It was a very visible spot," right near the entrance of a building, says Newton. "It seems like they weren't really looking," adds Creswell. But Javier and Peter, students at NYU and Columbia respectively, were counted. "They sought us out," Peter says.

Last year's census found about 3,600 street homeless in the five boroughs and in the subways, but because decoys were missed, that figure was bumped up around 22 percent to roughly 4,400. This year's numbers will take four to six weeks to process.

When the figure comes out, Homeless Services will defend it. Homeless advocates will, as usual, say the study is flawed because it relies on preconceived notions of where the "high density" homeless areas are, depends on volunteers, and suffers from the obvious problem that the street homeless are a tough population to study.

"The big issue here is not the accuracy of the count," says Patrick Markee of the Co alition for the Homeless. "It is what the city is doing to address street homelessness." And many advocates say the city is falling short. Homeless Services has reorganized several programs, launching drop-in centers and focusing on prevention. But the shelter system itself has changed little for homeless men: They still must go to a single East Side intake center in order to get a bed. The man with the white cart was headed that way.

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