Counting the Tip of the Iceberg: Homeless Street Counts
Listen [4:46]:
NARRATOR: ABOUT 3.5 MILLION AMERICANS ARE HOMELESS. WHEN YOU SEE PEOPLE SLEEPING ON CHURCH STEPS OR UNDER HIGHWAY OVERPASSES, YOU'RE SEEING ONLY ONE PART OF THE PROBLEM:

SHINN: Folks on the street are the visible tip of the iceberg.

NARRATOR: BETH SHINN IS PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY AND PUBLIC POLICY AT NEW YORK UNIVERSITY. SHE HAS DEVOTED MUCH OF HER PROFESSIONAL LIFE TO STUDYING HOMELESSNESS.

SHINN: Folks who are in shelter are maybe a chunk of the iceberg thatís a a- little below the water line that people donít see, and folks who are precariously housed are that huge mass of the iceberg that mostly is invisible to the general public

NARRATOR: HOW DO WE KNOW HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE HOMELESS? FOR ONE THING, THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT REQUIRES CITIES TO CONDUCT STREET COUNTS IN ORDER TO QUALIFY FOR FUNDING.

SHINN: a street count tries to get at people who are without shelter and who are visible in public places on the night of the count

NARRATOR: FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS, NEW YORK HAS DONE A "HOMELESS OUTREACH POPULATION ESTIMATE", OR HOPE COUNT.

SCHRETZMAN: We have about 2000 volunteers that we break up in about 4 groups

NARRATOR: MARYANNE SCHRETZMAN IS DEPUTY COMMISSIONER OF POLICY AND PLANNING IN NEW YORK'S DEPARTMENT OF HOMELESS SERVICES, OR DHS. SHE OVERSEES RESEARCH INTO ALL ASPECTS OF HOMELESSNESS IN THE CITY. THE HOPE COUNT IS ONE PART OF THAT. VOLUNTEERS GO OUT ON FOOT, UP AND DOWN STREETS FOR FIVE HOURS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT IN FEBRUARY

SCHRETZMAN: We see these folks who are at the end of February living on the streets. If they had a place to go, they would have been there, because it's cold out. The methodology requires that we ask everybody we see, to make sure that we're capturing all the homeless people on that night. We're also doing community counts to make sure that our outreach providers know every single soul that is in their community that is homeless.

CATHY: There's a guy coming up on the left there. Did you see him earlier?

NARRATOR: I WENT ALONG ON A COMMUNITY COUNT IN THE BRONX AT THE END OF LAST NOVEMBER. THIS WAS A 12 HOUR COUNT--4 AM TO 4 PM--RUN BY THE CITIZENíS ADVICE BUREAU. WE DROVE SLOWLY AROUND DISTRICTS IN VANS, AND GOT OUT WHEN WE SAW SOMEONE WHO MIGHT BE HOMELESS. THE GOAL WAS TO COUNT EVERY SINGLE HOMELESS PERSON ON THE STREETS OF THE BRONX.

CATHY: we're looking for somebody maybe pushing a cart or trying to see if we see any encampments

NARRATOR: CATHY GRAY WORKS FOR THE VISITING NURSE SERVICE OF NEW YORK.

CATHY: here's a guy right here

NARRATOR: CATHY WAS COUNTING ALONG WITH AMIE POPSIL WHO IS ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF THE HOMELESS OUTREACH PROGRAM AT THE CITIZENíS ADVICE BUREAU

AMY: Is there anything I can do to help you today. Do you have a place to stay? ANDERSON: No not really

NARRATOR: WE MET ANDERSON AT A CAN REDEMPTION CENTER IN THE SOUTH BRONX. HE HAD MATTED HAIR, AND WORE DIRTY PANTS THAT WERE WAY TOO BIG FOR HIM. HE WAS ROCKING BACK AND FORTH AS HE FADED IN AND OUT OF THE CONVERSATION.

CATHY: Stay with us, stay with us AMY: where do you usually sleep? ANDERSON: I sleep with a friend of mine sometime. AMY: do you ever have to stay on the street? ANDERSON: that happens

AUWATER: So we have CD 1, we have 2, who has reported. Who was three?

NARRATOR: SCOTT AUWATER WAS RUNNING THE BRONX COUNT. AS HE TALLIED NUMBERS, HE GUESSED THAT THEY FOUND ABOUT 200 PEOPLE. THE 2005 HOPE COUNT ESTIMATED 587 IN THE BRONX.

AUWATER: The city's estimate is much higher. I actually think that no one should live on the street. It's a miserable existence especially during the cold weather. So 200 is a high number.

NARRATOR: LAST YEAR DHS INTRODUCED DECOYS TO THE HOPE COUNT TO SEE HOW WELL THE SYSTEM WORKED. 59 PAIRS OF "FAKE" HOMELESS PEOPLE WERE PLANTED IN PLACES VOLUNTEERS SHOULD HAVE BEEN LOOKING. THE FINAL NUMBERS WERE INCREASED ACCORDING TO THE PERCENTAGE OF DECOYS WHO WERE NOT FOUND. THRE WAS A 5 PERCENT DROP IN THE HOPE COUNT NUMBERS BETWEEN 2004 AND 2005. DHS HAS BEEN CRITICIZED FOR UNDERCOUNTING, AND CLAIMING A DROP IN HOMELESSNESS BASED ON THIS 5%. MARYANNE SCHERTZMAN SAYS THEYíVE NEVER MADE SUCH CLAIMS:

SCHRETZMAN: We didn't lay any claims that there was a reduction in street homeless. If anything, it validated our numbers from the year before. That number was so close that it virtually remained the same

NARRATOR: NO COUNT IS EVER GOING TO FIND EVERY SINGLE HOMELESS PERSON. AND IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO COMPARE ONE COUNT TO ANOTHER, AS EACH USES DIFFERENT METHODS. BUT REGULAR COUNTS DO HELP OUTREACH WORKERS AND CITY DEPARTMENTS MONITOR HOW THEY'RE DOING FROM YEAR TO YEAR--AND THEY CAN HELP THEM DIRECT THEIR SERVICES:

AUWATER: It's important for us to have an overall number so that we can follow up with folks.

AMY: is there anything you need from us? We can take you to our drop-in center if you want. ANDERSON: Now that is something that is very very important

NARRATOR: IN NEW YORK, THIS IS SARAH ELZAS

CATHY: All right Anderson. AMY: Thank you Anderson! Nice to meet you



Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in New York, NY
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