A man with a white cart happens to be rolling it east along the south side of 45th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues at a little before 1 a.m. on the last day of February. Group G is on the same path at the same time, but moving slower, so he catches up to Suzanne Wagner and Moreen Sinclair, and they ask him the big question.
Meanwhile, a tourist with a goatee enters the block from the northwest, so Jo Anne Bennett stops him and asks the same thing. “Yes,” the tourist says, pointing down the street to his hotel. Bennett tells him why she’s asking. “Oh, sorry,” he says, “No, I do quite well.”
But the man with the white cart isn’t doing so well. So when asked, “Tonight, do you have some place that you consider to be your home or the place where you live?” he says, “No.” And voilà: New York City’s fourth annual census of the street homeless had found one.
An hour earlier all three women were sitting at the Group G table at Baruch College drinking coffee and eating granola bars with a couple hundred other volunteers—people from church groups, students, social workers. The site was one of 26 citywide where more than 2,000 census takers were getting ready to brave the cold and count the city’s street sleepers.
Onstage was Danny Farrell, a Department of Homeless Services official, explaining how the count works. “You need to sell it as comfortably as you can,” he says. “You want to approach as if there were an invisible wall between you. You want to consider spatial boundaries. Don’t just go right up to them. People who live on the street feel themselves in shark-infested waters.”
To some in the room, it seems a little strange to take a street census in 25 degrees and darkness. The timing is deliberate. It’s on a Monday to avoid pedestrian traffic and at the end of the month because that’s when welfare benefits are running out. And it’s in the middle of winter and the dead of night (midnight to 4 a.m.) because that’s when only the most desperate people are sleeping on the sidewalks.
“I think it’s to count those who are really living on the street, who are a challenge to engage,” Fran Winter, the acting commissioner of Homeless Services, tells the
Voice. It’s a “snapshot in time” of the street population, she says. But it’s also the stick by which the Bloomberg administration is measuring its progress toward a five-year goal of, by 2009, cutting the estimated street-sleeping population of more than 4,000 by two-thirds.
Midnight nears, so Farrell delves into the rules for the count: Volunteers are supposed to walk every sidewalk in their assigned areas once and speak to everyone they see. No doubling back to catch someone. No going into delis or bodegas, even if there’s a homeless-looking person inside. No entering abandoned buildings. Only public areas—but if an alley way looks sketchy, a volunteer doesn’t have to go there either.
The constraints mean that volunteers don’t actually see too many homeless people. But to make up for any letdown, there are T-shirts and thank-you notes from the mayor when it’s all over.
Group G bundles up. The coordinators split the group in two parts: Wagner, Sinclair, and Bennett get five square blocks in midtown, from 44th to 49th streets, between Fifth and Sixth avenues.
At this hour, Midtown is a land of vacant spaces and bright lights. Massive lobbies glow silently, a clean-swept plaza is fenced off and blanketed in street lamps, diamond store windows are empty but for bare plastic necks, and people are moving fast. Wagner, a social worker at the Center for Urban Community Services, makes the first approach and gets rebuffed by a man with a mustache and a satchel. Whether or not someone participates, and regardless of what they say, the volunteers have to answer Question 6: “Do you believe that this person is homeless?” The satchel man is a “no.”
Around the corner, Sinclair, who works at a Homeless Services intake center, gets a fuzzy answer. “If he says he has ‘a place to sleep,’ what does that mean?” asks Sinclair. Is he homeless, or staying at the Ritz?
At one point, Bennett, a research scientist at the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, sprints down a block to catch a guy getting on the M7 bus, snagging him just before he goes off the map. The whole count hinges on random paths intersecting: the chance that a homeless person is asleep—or heading in the right direction at the right speed—on the right street at the right time, isn’t in a sketchy alley or a deli, and either admits to being homeless or really looks the part.
The white-cart guy makes the task easy. “He was so sweet,” Wagner recounts as the group heads up Fifth Avenue. “He said, ‘I’m working on it, I’m working on it. I’m gonna stay inside.’ ”
They turn left onto 46th, and Sinclair talks about work at the intake center. Sometimes the guys cry. “I used to cry a lot myself,” she says, “because I saw the deterioration of men.” Back on Sixth Avenue, they turn north. “Oh! Oh!” Sinclair whispers, and nods toward a doorway next to the Big Apple Delicatessen. There’s a guy lying there. Wagner asks if he’s warm enough; he has no gloves, but he says he is.
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.”
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.