City Hall Census of the Homeless Defies Reality

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The annual census of the homeless is taking place tonight -- and it makes no more sense than the first time it was conducted.

How do you count people who have no homes? The survey, we suspect, was undertaken originally for political purposes -- to make it look as though City Hall has done a terrific job in taking care of this most vulnerable population.

What began under Mayor Giuliani has continued under Mayor Bloomberg. Some homeless people have been driven off the streets of Manhattan to other boroughs. In general, homeless people have been harassed and made miserable. Drop-off centers -- which used to be a place where transients could stop off for a cup of coffee or even for the opportunity to sleep sitting up at a table -- have been closed because of a lack of funds.

Morning commuters now find there are many homeless people riding the trains, the only affordable shelter they can find.  Some ride the rails all day and night. Often, the presence of a homeless person in a subway car can be detected because there are empty spaces around him or her -- as some commuters are reluctant to get too close to these people.

This time, in the press release announcing the latest survey by a group called Services for the Underserved, working for the city, there’s already an indication of the conclusion they will reach.

The press release notes that while last year, the survey found that the number of homeless living on the streets had declined by 47 percent since 2005, this time there is concern that federal and state budget cuts "could erase the accomplishments of recent years and return New York City to the unacceptable situations it was forced to deal with in the 80s and 90s."

I have been reporting on the homeless crisis since the 1980s. I spent the other night, out on the streets, trying to get a sense of today’s situation. I don’t know where the magic numbers come from. It seems to me that the situation of homeless New Yorkers is just as desperate today as it was yesterday.

At three in the morning, I spoke to one man collecting cans and soda bottles to get the deposits. He was walking through the Central Park transverse at 86th Street and Fifth Avenue. Robert Calderon is proud that he can make $200 a week this way. Through the night he works collecting the cans and bottles. "I’m not a bum," he says.

Hector Yambo, another impoverished New Yorker, appeared at a food van of the Coalition for the Homeless. He said: "I come here because the economy is very bad. It helps to save money."

Recently, The New York Times reported that a Columbia professor hired by the city to help conduct the annual survey of the homeless, had strongly criticized the project.

The city estimated that homelessness had dropped by nearly 50 percent from 2005 to 2008, but Professor Julien Teitler said in 2007 that city officials were "arbitrarily adjusting" figures "based on an assumption that turns a scientifically based method into a non-scientific one."

The Bloomberg administration insisted the survey met national standards.

Whether or not City Hall is cooking the numbers is irrelevant. It’s clear that the approach to the homeless crisis is flawed -- and, for the sake of humanity, something should be done about it.

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