We Went Out To Count All Of The Homeless In New York City, And It Was Devastating

For several freezing, early-morning hours Monday, Jan. 27, thousands of New York City volunteers patrolled the city’s streets and subways looking for undocumented homeless residents.

Last year’s survey reported a 13% rise to 64,060 homeless people in shelters and on the street, bucking a national trend of declining rates. This year’s numbers won’t be available for a few weeks.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed to make a significant dent in city homelessness despite an overhaul of policies in the mid-2000s, and new Mayor Bill De Blasio made the crisis a major part of his campaign.

When Business Insider tagged along to see how the count was done, we learned that the most difficult part of helping the homeless can be finding them, particularly the thousands of chronically homeless people, who have spent at least one consecutive year without a home and typically live outside shelters and suffer mental illness, substance abuse, or physical handicap.

Volunteers were sent to all five New York City boroughs and their subways. We went to New York’s Pennsylvania Station where we met dozens of people with tragic stories, needing help more than most of us can imagine.

New York City's Department of Homeless Services called for 3,000 volunteers Monday, Jan. 27, to help count the city's unsheltered homeless population.

Department of Homeless Services attorney Tonie Baez delivered the rules for the complicated task ahead.

Much of the volunteer's instructions centered around the temperature outside. When it's below freezing, during sustained winds or rain, a Code Blue calls for increased efforts from outreach teams and tonight was no different.

Volunteers were told they would encounter decoys, city workers posing as homeless residents waiting to be counted. No one would know who the decoys were until the questions with that individual were concluded.

And plenty of New York City's finest were on hand to handle any possible excitement.

Following a safety briefing on what to expect, some of us got into a van to patrol the train and subway stations, while others left on foot to count homeless residents in their designated zone.

Regardless of where we went, it looked to be a long night for everyone involved.

Penn Station was still full of people at 2 o'clock in the morning.

Surprisingly few were catching trains at this hour.

Volunteers were instructed to wake people ...

Chase them down ...

Even if they didn't appear to be homeless.

And ask them all a series of questions to help determine the best way for the area to support its homeless population.

Regardless of their condition, whether intoxicated or suffering from mental issues, everyone we asked recalled details about their plight at a word. Richard Henderson, 31, from Atlanta who left his parents' home in a fight over his sexuality years ago and never went back.

Though some people claimed not to be homeless at all, just between apartments or homes.

And some people refused to answer any questions at all.

The count went on deep into the morning.

While those whose job it is to help ease lives on the streets gathered crucial information ...

... it's a never-ending struggle ...

... in the city that never sleeps.

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