No one really knows how many homeless people there are in New York City, and no one ever has. The city’s official “daily census” tallies the population in the homeless-shelter system, but fails to count thousands of other New Yorkers living under borrowed roofs or open sky: people in domestic-violence shelters and temporary veterans’ housing, emergency shelters for people with HIV/AIDS, facilities operated by religious entities, shelters for runaway youth, or short-term beds attached to the correction system. It also omits the street homeless population, not to mention people who are housed only because they are briefly in a city jail, or found temporary refuge in a hospital, or are doubled up—for now, but probably not forever—with family and friends. All told, these categories could add up to 15,000 to 20,000 people.
Still, the official census is the go-to barometer of homelessness in the city, and it soared in the final years of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty. After Bill de Blasio’s stunning victory in 2013—a victory which he won, in part, by attacking Bloomberg’s failed record on inequality—The New York Times published a harrowing feature story on the journey of one girl, Dasani Coates, made through the city’s shelter system during the Bloomberg era. On Inauguration Day in 2014, Dasani held the Bible as the city’s new Public Advocate Letitia James took her oath of office, and the little girl looked on as de Blasio took his. Within two months of becoming mayor, de Blasio removed families from two of the notorious family shelters, including one where Dasani had been forced to dwell. “The transition at the Auburn and Catherine Street shelters is our first public step in a larger strategy to improve homeless services,” the mayor said in a statement, “while we address the underlying causes that have left a record-number of adults and children living in New York City shelters.”
Now, as de Blasio prepares his case for reelection, he presides over a shelter system that has set new records on his watch. As of Tuesday, May 2, there were 58,702 people in the system—over 8,000 more than the day Bloomberg left City Hall. Incomplete as it is, the shelter census is stark proof of the “tale of two cities” reality de Blasio condemned as a candidate and of the challenges the mayor has faced—some external, some of his own making—in trying to create a more inclusive New York.
There’s been no lack of activity on the mayor’s part. He has created new housing subsidies, spent generously on legal services to prevent evictions, taken steps to improve shelter security, and reorganized the homeless-services bureaucracy. Still, the numbers have climbed.
So the mayor hit the reset button in February, unveiling a plan that includes, among its central proposals, building up to 90 new shelters in the next five years while improving shelter operations and ending the city’s reliance on hotels and private apartments to shelter people. The plan also promises to whittle the numbers of homeless New Yorkers by 2,500—or a very modest 500 a year.
“This is a commitment to do something different….,” the mayor said when he announced the plan. “We will make progress, but it will be incremental. It will be slow, and I hope, and I believe it will be steady.”