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UWS Panhandling and Homelessness Complaints Reach 5-Year High, Data Show

By Emily Frost | October 16, 2015 9:18am | Updated on October 19, 2015 9:01am
 Calls have increased every single year, hitting an all-time high this August.
Calls have increased every single year, hitting an all-time high this August.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost and Billy Figueroa

UPPER WEST SIDE — Calls from locals about the presence of homeless people, panhandlers and homeless encampments in the neighborhood have risen dramatically over the past five years — with this summer marking the high point for complaints, data show.

DNAinfo looked at public records of 311 calls concerning homeless people in the 10023, 10024 and 10025 zip codes — between West 59th and 114th streets on the West Side — from January 2010 through September 2015.

Except for a slight dip of 26 fewer complaints in 2011, the number of calls to register an issue regarding a homeless person or to make the city aware of the issue grew every year, according to the data.

The complaints reached a peak this August, with 115 calls made, marking the most in a given month across all five years. That figure amounted to more than the total calls received during all of 2010, 2011 or 2012, the data show.

Calls to 311 increased by 70 percent between 2012 and 2013, and jumped by 64 percent between 2013 and 2014. While the 2015 data only cover the months through September, calls have already increased 54 percent compared to all of 2014.

From January through September of this year, 459 calls were placed, compared with 298 during all of 2014. It’s unclear precisely what is motivating the increase in calls.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has blamed the most recent increase on media hype.

“I’m not sure if the attention that’s been given is proportionate to what’s happening,” he told reporters in August. “I think it’s caused people to be more and more concerned.”

Citywide data collected via an annual street survey show the number of unsheltered has fluctuated in recent years, but remained roughly the same.

From 2010 to 2015, the number of street homeless surveyed in the annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), done every January, has increased and decreased every other year.

The number of individuals on the street does increase in the warmer months, though these people are not necessarily chronically homeless individuals, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) said.

The calls could be related to this uptick, with local advocates noting that they see a jump in transient people and panhandlers during the summer months.

On average across the past five years, complaints spiked from July to October and plummeted in January, February and March.

The spike in homeless people on the street during the summer was also noted by Joe Hallmark, associate director at the nonprofit Goddard Riverside Community Center, which operates supportive housing for formerly homeless people and homeless outreach teams locally.

He told locals at a recent neighborhood meeting that there’s a population of young, transient people subscribing to a certain street culture who may be contributing to the increase.

“We see more of them during the summer and not during the winter,” he said of the individuals, who call themselves “Crusties” or “Oogles.”

Lisa Lombardi, deputy executive director for the homeless housing and services organization Urban Pathways, said at the meeting that she’d also observed this demographic in higher numbers this summer.

“Some of the young people I’m seeing are much more couples and couples with [pets]” she said.

But focusing exclusively on these young people, who may stay for only a few months, is not ideal, Hallmark noted.

“A lot of services can get sucked up with individuals who are transitional,” he said. “You have a lot of people who are homeless for short periods of time.”

There’s also a discrepancy between the number of people on the street during the day and those who sleep there at night, Hallmark said.

Goddard Riverside’s outreach teams canvass the neighborhood nightly and see fewer people on local streets at those times, meaning many of them may have shelter or housing, he explained.

Service providers — including Hallmark's and Lombardi's organizations, as well as the Department of Homeless Services — believe calling 311 is an important and effective way to get unsheltered people help.

Additionally, locals who see people on the street during the day asking for money shouldn’t give to them, Lombardi said.

“I think giving money is not the answer,” she said. “I really want to have a day of no panhandling.”

When dialing 311, callers should make sure to get connected to DHS, and never let the operator provide a phone number to call on their own or tell them to call back, Hallmark advised. “[Once] you get connected to DHS operations, they set up a three-way call, they get the details and they have to get out there,” he said. “They have to respond.”

The chronically homeless population has fluctuated, but advocates and the DHS believe transitional housing — which often has no requirement that a person be sober or stable before entering — is making an impact.

Currently, there are seven shelters in the neighborhood, according to DHS. Urban Pathways is working to open another in Manhattan Valley specifically aimed at people who’ve lived on the street for at least nine months.

“DHS works aggressively to serve all unsheltered individuals in the city. We have enhanced the services offered to this population, including creating alternative housing options for individuals not willing to enter traditional shelter and expanding the number of staff performing outreach citywide,” the agency said in a statement.

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