Why cities around the globe are doing late-night counts of homeless people

In Athens last December, small groups of volunteers canvassed streets late at night to count the homeless population. (Bloomberg Associates photo)

In Paris tonight, 1,000 volunteers will fan out through the city’s streets, parks, and subway stations in search of the city’s homeless.

Their aim: to gather the first-ever comprehensive count of Paris’ homeless population and, in the process, gain a better understanding of why these individuals are on the street. City leaders hope the insight will both inform future interventions and set a baseline to help them measure future progress in moving people off sidewalks and into stable housing.

“The idea is to be sure that every square meter has been footed by Parisian citizens — each of them using the same methodology on the same night — to count how many people sleep in the streets,” explained Sylvain Lemoine, adviser for social issues and refugees to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. “We want to understand why, despite all the shelters we’ve built and all the services we’ve designed, so many people are still living in the street.”

“Point-in-time” street counts like this have become commonplace in the United States since 2003, when then-New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg piloted that city’s first count. In fact, they’re now required for communities receiving certain federal funds for homeless services. Typically, the exercise is done the last week of January, when cold weather reveals who is most resistant — or unable — to seek shelter. While these counts are only required every other year, most U.S. cities conduct them annually.

The practice has only recently started to spread globally, most recently in Europe, where a 2017 report showed homelessness growing in every country but Finland. Next week’s count in Paris, and a similar one held in Athens in December, is part of a growing effort to get a handle on the problem.

Linda Gibbs, who first developed New York’s counting strategy as commissioner of homeless services, is now advising both of those cities as a principal with Bloomberg Associates — a pro-bono consulting firm set up by Michael Bloomberg to work with city leaders around the world in eight subject areas, including social services, transportation, and urban planning. As they are with Paris and Athens, Gibbs and Bloomberg Associates have also worked with Mexico City and Bogotá helping those cities incorporate best practices from around the world as they developed their own homeless population counts.

“You count because you want to change,” Gibbs said. “It’s not just an intellectual exercise. You want to feed that information into the collaborative network to spur new thinking about what it takes to get people off the street.”

In Athens, 70 volunteers from social-services groups canvassed the city center at 1 a.m., shortly after the subway closed. Questions were carefully worded so volunteers didn’t presume everybody they encountered was homeless. Théodora Papadimitriou, a mayoral adviser who organized the Athens count, explained that volunteers spoke with people who dressed well and turned out to be homeless and others who dressed shabby but were not. “That was one of our most important lessons,” Papadimitriou said. “The count changes your own image of what homelessness looks like.” Athens will follow this limited count with a citywide count this spring, as part of a national effort in five or six cities.

In Paris, organizers are putting a few twists on the counting strategy used in New York. Paris will have volunteers canvass the entire city in one night, where New York’s model relies on statistical sampling. That means Paris will need a small army of volunteers to do the count. Plus, Paris counters will ask many more questions, going beyond demographic questions to ask more about personal circumstances.

“We want to understand how come you are on the streets,” Lemoine said. “We have the feeling that the way we built shelters the past 30 years does not fit the needs of the homeless right now, and we are trying to understand if our feeling is right.”

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Paris pilot-tested its methodology two weeks ago in the 10th Arrondissement, a neighborhood just north of the city center. About 250 volunteers, most of them with social services experience, split into teams of three to five to canvas the area from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. The test provided valuable insights for tonight’s citywide count, Lemoine said. With 25 questions, the questionnaire was too long; a new one will be shorter. The pilot also clarified some questions about how to staff each team and made clear the need to have plenty of food and water on hand for the volunteers.

Keeping those volunteers happy is critical to the count. Paris is billing the event not as a data-collection exercise, but as the Nuit de la Solidarité — the night of solidarity. One goal of recruiting so many volunteers is to build a community of activists who want to be part of the quest for solutions. “The people are counting with us,” Lemoine said. “We can’t just say ‘thanks for the help, now let us do our work and we’ll see you next year.’ We want to use the count as a way to get people involved in the social policies of Paris.”

Gibbs praised Paris and the other cities she’s worked with for adapting the homeless count strategy to their own circumstances. “When new cities do this, they’re not just mimicking what New York or other U.S. cities did,” she said. “They’re really tailoring it to their own situations and needs — and bringing their own resources and creativity to it.”

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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