Why New York Hires 200 People to Pretend They’re Homeless - The New York Times

To gauge the accuracy of the annual count of homeless people on the streets, New York City commissions a “shadow count” of decoys, shown here in a training session. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

One night a year, Javon Egyptt and Darryn Lubonski stage a performance on a New York City sidewalk. Dressed in layers, hats and extra socks, the couple pretends to be homeless.

They will join about 200 other decoys who will be paid to act as if they live on the street during the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate, the city’s annual census of unsheltered homeless people, as a way gauging the count’s accuracy.

Like many of the decoys, Ms. Egyptt and Mr. Lubonski have experienced homelessness, living in subway stations or parks, abandoned homes or on the streets.

“When New York City had a blizzard up to here,” Ms. Egyptt said, placing her hand at her stomach, “I was on the street.”

The city enlists thousands of volunteers for the four-hour, overnight canvas, an undertaking that would cost far more without the unpaid search parties. The decoys shoulder the responsibility of testing the accuracy of a survey carried out by volunteers who are sometimes too timid to approach homeless people or are too inattentive to spot them.

The annual count, scheduled for Jan 22, is part of a nationwide estimate of homelessness, which helps to determine annual federal grants.

The city uses the percentage of decoys who are not found as a margin of error, one of several factors used to come up with the final estimate. “All of our efforts here are essentially checking our work,” said Steven Banks, the city’s commissioner of social services.

The decoy program is known as the “shadow count,” and the people who brave the cold year after year say they do it not for the pay of $85, but as a civic duty.

The city estimated that 3,900 people lived unsheltered during last year’s census, accounting for about 5 percent of the city’s 77,000 homeless people. Still, there was a 40 percent jump in street homelessness over the previous year, which city officials attributed to unseasonably warm weather. But advocates for homeless people have long argued that the unsheltered population is likely higher, since people find temporary relief with friends and family during inclement weather.

For the rest of the year, thousands of people choose the street over a warm shelter bed. Ms. Egyptt and Mr. Lubonski, 53, pointed to the lax security and squalid conditions of shelters.

“My boots got stolen. I got stabbed,” Mr. Lubonski said.

“Mold in the showers,” Ms. Egyptt said, shaking her head.

Decoys were shown the areas where they would be assigned for the annual homeless survey. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Ruby Garner, 56, who helps supervise the decoys, said she once lived in an abandoned building where she cooked food on a makeshift stove fashioned from bricks and candles. She said she slept on a bed of old clothes. “I had that apartment looking like it was mine,” she said, laughing at her ingenuity.

She said the annual survey does not capture squatters who may be off the street but aren’t in a shelter or a home. “If those enumerators really want to know, I could take them,” she said.

The HOPE count, established in 2005, sticks to more visible, public spaces.

Decoys underwent training last week at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, which administers the shadow count under a $133,000 contract with the city. At two sessions on a Monday night, people hugged and greeted each other. Many of them only see each other once a year to prepare for the overnight endeavor. They shared advice and swapped stories as Christine H. Kim, the project manager for the count, went over logistics and dos and don’ts.

Decoys must work in pairs, standing or sitting 10 to 15 feet apart on a street, train or subway platform. Volunteers cannot be faulted for failing to find decoys who are not where they were supposed to be. “It’s kind of like you’re not even there,” Ms. Kim told decoys.

But decoys also must not draw attention with signs or signals. “You don’t want to do the job of the enumerators,” she said. “You’re tired. You’re hungry. You have to go to the bathroom. But you let that enumerator pass you by.”

Arvernetta Henry, a retired teacher in her late 60s, admitted that she and a partner once waved down volunteers who overlooked them as they stood under a bridge. “We’re over here! We’re over here!” said Ms. Henry, who used to be homeless. “This young group, they were so excited to find us. You would have thought they found a gold mine.”

On average, about 90 percent of decoys are found, and most are found within two hours, revealing themselves after volunteers ask whether they have somewhere to live.

A decoy recalled that he was found at 12:05 a.m., barely having enough time for him to lean on a garbage can and for his partner to post up on a fence. But Ms. Kim cautioned, “There are always some unlucky people who are left out there until 4 a.m.”

Most of the homeless in New York City are black, and many of the volunteers are white. Decoys at the training said a few white volunteers seemed afraid to approach them, and they blamed racism. “Maybe there was some racial tension,” Ms. Kim said.

There is also tension within the decoy ranks.

A decoy blamed her partner’s sleek outfit for volunteers passing them by on a Far Rockaway street last year. “I had my hair kind of crazy. She had a bag strapped around her like she was running,” the woman said.

Some fellow decoys winced at her words, feeling that she harbored a misperception.

Attitudes that all street homeless people are mentally ill and bedraggled lead to undercounts, said Mr. Lubonski, recalling how volunteers failed to recognize Ms. Egyptt and him as they stood in front of a Manhattan subway entrance.

“When I was homeless, I looked just like this,” he said, opening his arms. He wore khaki pants and sneakers.

During an interview, Ms. Egyptt wore a shearling bomber and swayed as if she were modeling. “They’ll bypass me,” she said. “There are people who are not homeless who smell.”