New York City revised how it collects sheltered homelessness data on July 14 to require city agencies to produce a complete census of people living in its shelter system.
The changes mean that the four municipal agencies that operate the city’s shelter system are now required to publish data about the total number of people who use their shelters. Before the bill passed, only one agency—the Department of Homeless Services—was required to publish such figures, although the DHS census only accounted for people living in emergency or temporary shelters.
“More complete reporting helps all of us inside and outside government, as well as the media, the public, academia, to understand the scope and demographics of homelessness in New York City, and to bring our advocacy recommendations and policy solutions to levels that match these metrics,” Shelly Notz, the deputy executive director of policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, told Invisible People.
New York first adopted a law requiring city agencies to publish homeless count data in 2011 when it passed Local Law 37. The law requires agencies to publish the data so that the city can “accurately determine the extent of the need for temporary emergency housing and associated services in the city.”
But some say the data has never truly reflected the state of homelessness in The Big Apple.
New York’s Chief Housing Officer, Jessica Katz, said the government has previously tried to “get cute” with its homeless data instead of acknowledging the root of the problem—a lack of affordable housing options, especially for low-income families.
“We’ve always just looked away and swept it under the rug until now,” Katz said.
The new law, Intro-212, was introduced in 2018 by former councilmember Steven Levin. However, former Mayor Bill de Blasio opposed reforming Local Law 37, and Levin was term-limited, effectively killing the bill before City Council began deliberations.
Diana Ayala, who represents District 8 and chairs the Committee on General Welfare, reintroduced the bill in April 2022. It passed nearly three months later.
The Safety Net Project, part of the Urban Justice Center, a homeless legal aid center, said that the new law is designed to help the shelters that have been “all but ignored in most policy discussions and reporting.”
Shining a light on who each of New York’s shelter operators serves could help more shelters gain access to housing assistance resources, Safety Net Project said. One example the group pointed to is the Department of Youth & Community Development shelters, which do not accept CityFHEPS vouchers, a municipal rental assistance subsidy.
Data from New York’s Department of Homeless Services shows that most people who use the city’s shelter system are single adults with children and families with children. So far this year, nearly 12,000 school-aged children have entered the shelter system.
The Safety Net Project also said the organization is concerned about the new law’s reporting requirements.
Although Intro-212 became effective immediately after it was passed, it gives Mayor Eric Adams’ office a whole year to record the new totals.
“There is simply no reason to give the administration another year to tell the public how many people it shelters, or how its housing resources and planning are faring,” Safety Net Project said.
Data collection has become a topic of debate in the homeless services sector since the pandemic began in March 2020. Two years later, researchers and academics are still trying to accurately measure the impact the pandemic had on people experiencing homelessness.
For instance, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) annual report to Congress on homelessness states that its findings were limited by “pandemic-related disruptions to counts of unsheltered homeless people in January 2021.” Several local homeless authorities shared similar concerns about their data.
Some cities took matters into their own hands and devised new ways of measuring their homeless populations. Seattle began integrating data from local public health and information technology agencies to supplement its Point in Time count data.
This method showed that more than 40,000 people entered the city’s homeless services sector compared to the 11,700 counted under the HUD method.
How You Can Help
The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing. It also showed that aid programs work when government provides agencies and service organizations with sufficient funds and clear guidance on spending aid dollars.
Contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness.