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Volunteers Count New York's Homeless

HUD to Use Tally To Allocate New Funds And Special Projects

By Michelle Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page A19

NEW YORK, March 8 -- They offer their stories of life on the streets of New York -- as seen at 2 a.m. outside Penn Station. The woman with the gray-streaked hair says a landlord forced her out. The stoned young man says the drug rehab did not come soon enough.

On Monday night, 2,000 volunteers went into the corners of this city's five boroughs, logging names, listening to these stories and counting the numbers of homeless people who live on the streets.

Volunteer Phillipa Taylor interviews an unidentified man about his living situation at a New York subway station. (Julie Jacobson -- AP)

Their count was part of a new effort by the city to improve its chance of receiving millions of dollars in federal grants. Dozens of cities from San Francisco to Louisville to Dallas are conducting similar head counts for the same reason.

Federal officials will not use the counts to allocate need-based assistance for homelessness. Rather, officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the data will be used to rank cities in a competition for new funding and special projects.

"This is simply a glimpse of homelessness," said Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman. "You can't get a complete picture unless you count it at the street level."

Last year, HUD awarded $4.1 billion in homeless funding across the country. New York state was the largest recipient, with $73 million. Maryland received $36 million, Virginia got $21 million, and the District picked up $17 million.

Some homeless advocacy groups dismiss the counts as a publicity gimmick, saying the counts concentrate on a small number of people who live on the streets and are a distraction from the real task: finding homes and getting mental health and drug treatment services for the homeless. "The point is not to count how many people are sleeping on the streets," said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. "The real question should be 'What should we being doing to get people off these streets and long-term solutions?' "

New York's count had a number of imperfections. Volunteers canvassed only about a fifth of the city, and the surveyors did not poke into such common refuges as abandoned buildings and ATM vestibules.

Still, Linda Gibbs, the city's commissioner of homeless services, said the survey helps the city plan how to distribute services to the street homeless -- the hardest population to address. "What we're trying to do is ensure that the substantial resources that are spent on homeless are being used in the wisest fashion," she said.

On any given night, about 37,000 New Yorkers bed down in public shelters, according to the city's Department of Homeless Services. Three-quarters of that number are families; the rest are single adults. But city officials have only a vague idea of how many people curl up over steam grates, tuck into doorways or sleep on subway platforms.

City officials expect to have a calculation of Monday night's count within a few weeks.

New York City is one of only a few cities in the nation where advocates long ago won the legal right to shelter. Anyone walking into a shelter cannot be turned away. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, city officials made a concerted effort and successfully drove down the homeless numbers. They built tens of thousands of units of housing and, together with then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D), crafted a plan to build hotels with drug rehabilitation and mental health services for homeless adults.

But Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) cut back on homeless and housing funding and tightened requirements during his tenure as mayor. The homeless population since has skyrocketed, even as the city enjoyed financial boom times.

Common Ground is one of the groups that have worked to integrate services, construct single-room-occupancy buildings for the homeless and arrange for services for homeless people who live within a mile or two of Times Square. Its work has become something of a national model -- although one that is not cheap.

Juan Rodriguez, an outreach worker with Common Ground, has only to catch the "midnight run" across from Penn Station, a nocturnal distribution of food for street homeless, to see the complexities of homelessness. His survey team Tuesday night ran into a crowd of familiar faces, regulars on the street.

Ramond Galloway, a willowy man with a jazz singer's voice, lays his story on Rodriguez. Now in his sixties, Galloway had pulled his life together, entered detox and found housing assistance. He has worked as an outreach counselor.

But a few months ago, his habit slipped the hook in again. Now his luggage and shopping bags block the sidewalk. Well-spoken and from a good North Carolina family, he shrugs and acknowledges: "On paper, I have no reason to be out here."

Rodriguez nods and speaks of the difficulty of this work. "It's not going to happen overnight," he said. "You're going to bounce and repeat."

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