Looking for HOPE: Homeless Services Holds Overnight Survey

January 31, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Zach Campbell
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — Nearly 120 people gathered late Monday in the cafeteria of Boerum Hill’s P.S. 261 to take part in the annual HOPE (Homeless Outreach Population Estimate) survey of street homelessness. They were part of the 3,000 people volunteering across all five boroughs for the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), and they were geared up for a very long night.

HOPE volunteers walked many of New York’s streets, parks and subway stations for four hours early Tuesday morning with surveys in hand, stopping every person they encountered for a few quick questions. They were instructed to ask every person they passed if they “had a place they called home,” and if it was a house or an apartment.

The vast majority say yes, moving on to their destination. For those that were homeless, volunteers would offer to connect them with DHS services, who would provide transportation to a shelter.

Surveys like this are conducted annually throughout the U.S., many using methodology developed by DHS in New York.

“The HOPE estimate is the most rigorous estimate of the people on city streets in the country,” explained Seth Diamond, DHS commissioner. “Its a methodology that we developed and has been in place since 2005.”

DHS workers divided volunteers into teams of four to six people, who each were given multiple “survey areas” to walk. While the entirety of NYC was not covered by HOPE, the areas surveyed are said by DHS to be representative of where the street homeless are living.

Many homeless advocacy organizations have been critical of the HOPE survey, saying that it does not provide an accurate picture of homelessness in New York.

“It’s more of a PR event than anything else,” says Jiselle Ruthier of the Coalition for the Homeless. Ruthier’s organization, founded after a landmark court decision establishing New Yorkers’ right to shelter, has been doing homeless outreach in New York for 30 years.

“They pick certain blocks to canvass within the city and only cover public spaces,” Ruthier explained, adding that most of the street homeless in New York will live in empty lots, abandoned buildings and other out-of-the-way locations. “If you’re homeless, you’re going to stay in a place that is hard to find.”

Volunteers were also instructed to not survey people who appeared to be living out of their cars.

At the volunteer training at P.S. 261, a map was taped to the cafeteria wall outlining all the sites to be surveyed in Brooklyn. It showed a very dense grouping in Downtown Brooklyn, surrounding Prospect Park, and all through Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

Survey areas in Bushwick, East New York and south of the park were few and far between.

“This is a snapshot that only really scratches the surface of people who are homeless,” said Scott Cotenoff of the Partnership for the Homeless, another NYC-based advocacy organization. Cotenoff explains that by limiting the survey to data gathered in public places and by conducting it in the middle of winter, DHS is providing an inaccurate count of street homelessness.

The survey’s timing is very deliberate and is the same for homeless surveys nationwide. “Its precisely at this time of year why we try to do this,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). “This is the time of year when people on the street will be at their lowest level.

“The idea is that if you do it on one of the coldest nights of the year, you increase the likelihood of the unsheltered population being sheltered and being accounted for,” he said. He added that while NYC’s HOPE survey can provide an estimate of the city’s homeless, the results of this study are not indicative of who will be on the street at other times of year, particularly in the summer, when the numbers of street homeless swell.

Still, many of the volunteers were eager to help where they could. Of the people present for the training at P.S. 261, about a third had volunteered for HOPE before. Many more volunteers showed up than were expected.

“Brooklyn always comes out pretty strong with volunteers,” said Sam Dodge, a DHS employee and a leader of one of the survey groups.

While out on the survey, Dodge checked in every corner and behind every bush. He was able to help one person that night —  a woman in her 20s, walking down Tillary Street, who said she had been homeless for a week since the death of her mother.

Grateful for the information, she said she had a place to stay that night and was headed to intake the next day.

“It’s hectic at first,” Dodge reassured her, “but once you get through intake and settled it calms down a lot.”

Many volunteers had some connection to DHS, be it through a friend or family member. Others came in groups, eager to help.

One volunteer, a man in his 30s, said it was his first time doing any sort of volunteer work.

“I just wanted to give something back,” he said. “No matter how bad off you’re doing, there’s always someone doing worse.”

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