The Great Homeless Hunt
Published in the Fall 2005 issue of NYU Alumni Magazine
By Anju Mary Paul
The Brooklyn Bridge is great to walk on but not so great to sleep under. From 11 p.m. until almost 3 a.m. on a snowless March night, Kalyan Neelamraju, 25, sat on two garbage bags under the bridge, wrapped in five layers of clothing and two blankets. A temperature-controlled subway station would have been warmer and safer, Neelamraju knew, but his buddy Joe Amick preferred the seedy semi-darkness under the bridge and Neelamraju had agreed to tag along.
Contrary to appearances, Neelamraju and Amick were not members of New York City's army of homeless. But that night in March, they were pretending to be. The two Wagner Graduate School of Public Service students were acting as decoys to test the accuracy of New York City's Department of Homeless Services' (DHS) annual street tally of homeless people.
This was only the third time the street count was being conducted but the biggest one yet. In three short years, the count has grown from covering only Manhattan to a city-wide survey including subway stations and trains, and is held up by the federal government as a standard to follow. But there have always been critics, those who are convinced that the city is undercounting, and therefore underserving, its homeless population. "There's an assumption that all people who are homeless and not in a shelter are some place where they can be counted in the middle of the night," says Professor Beth Shinn from NYU's Department of Psychology and the Wagner School. "We always questioned it."
And so Professor Shinn and Professor Kim Hopper from the Nathan Kline Institute, who sit on the DHS Advisory Board, proposed a test. DHS agreed and on the night of the count, 120 volunteer decoys (among them dozens of NYU psychology, public service and social work students) planted themselves in pre-assigned locations throughout the city to see if they would be counted.
At 2:50 a.m., after almost four hours under the bridge and only ten minutes to go before the cut-off time, Neelamraju and Amick felt sure they had been overlooked, and decided to call it a night. But as the two students were walking to the subway, a group carrying telltale clipboards approached them. The students identified themselves as decoys with a sigh of relief. "I had been disappointed we weren't going to get caught," remembers Neelamraju. "I'm glad we were because if the City is trying to do a reasonable count, the more people they catch the better."
Over the next two days, NYU volunteers were back on the streets, this time visiting the city's soup kitchens and other homeless services, to interview homeless people about their location on the night of the count. Taylor Speer, a freshman at CAS, interviewed people at the Church of the Epiphany on 74th Street. "One man was convinced I worked for Mike Bloomberg and refused to talk to me," she recalls. "He started shouting to everyone not to answer my questions...But people were responsive for the most part."
The initial figures from the city survey: 3594 street homeless. But after adjusting for the decoys missed by the counters, DHS increased that estimate by 22% to 4395. Even with this increase, NYC has one of the lowest homelessness rates of any major U.S. city.
Looking back, Jay Bainbridge, who headed the joint project from the DHS side, calls it "a tremendous collaboration" and a "great example of open government." He hopes to make the decoy program a standard fixture of future counts.
It's about time, says Patrick Markee, Senior Policy Analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, "We thought the [decoy count] was a very good thing but we were telling the city to do it three years ago. Ultimately," he adds, "What's most important is reducing street homelessness."
To that end, DHS Commissioner Linda Gibbs said this year's more accurate number will serve as a baseline to measure the progress of Mayor Bloomberg's plan to reduce street homelessness by two-thirds by 2009.
The DHS action plan, called 'Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter', includes initiatives to improve street outreach to the homeless, and ease their entry into shelters and supportive housing. Here too, Professor Shinn is involved in researching the effectiveness of different approaches to ending chronic homelessness. She finds it heartening that the city administration is "very interested in trying to use research to do things better."
Neelamraju is relieved that his own homelessness was short-lived but he's willing to be homeless again next year. "In the beginning, I was a little more hesitant and Joe was more willing," he says. But it turned out that the "dangerous" Brooklyn Bridge area they had volunteered for had a police booth 30 meters away and was perfectly safe. "I might even volunteer to go to another 'dangerous' place." Then again, maybe he'll sleep in a subway station. It might be snowing next March.