Every journalist can tell you about a time they missed something. Three years ago, David Brand, a social worker turned journalist, got an assignment from City Limits, a small nonprofit media outlet, to write a series of articles about family homelessness in New York City. In his former career, Brand had worked with people navigating the city’s vast shelter system. He had – or thought he had – a thorough knowledge of this subject. Prior to his City Limits assignment, he had written freelance articles on the treatment of immigrants in shelters, homeless cop training standards, and the challenges children coming out of foster care face. when trying to eat well. .

For the first article in the series on family homelessness, Brand interviewed several mothers with young children about their experiences at city shelters. After it was posted, a homeless rights advocate called to warn Brand. Why was he quoting the figures for the population of the shelters published regularly by the town hall? Those are bad numbers, the lawyer said. The city’s statistics accounted for the tens of thousands of people sleeping each night in shelters overseen by the Department of Homeless Services, which include New York’s largest adult and family shelters. But there were thousands more sleeping in smaller shelters overseen by other city agencies: domestic violence shelters, shelters for people living with HIV/AIDS, disaster relief shelters, runaway child shelters. The brand still seems appalled to talk about it. “I used to work on the streets from a shelter for survivors of domestic violence,” he told me recently. “But it never really crossed my mind that the reported numbers don’t match an accurate census.”

Today, Brand is a full-time editor for City Limits, for which he has produced a steady stream of accurate, hard-edged stories about homelessness and the city’s response to it. He’s learned to be more specific when referring to city statistics on homelessness, and he sometimes devotes a paragraph or two in an article to unpacking the distinction between Department of Homeless Services data and the city’s entire housing system. Late last year, after years of watching the city resist publishing a more comprehensive daily census, Brand and his publisher, Jeanmarie Evely, decided to do what the city wouldn’t. By sifting through publicly released statistics and filing Freedom of Information requests for data not usually published, City Limits compiled a “tracker” that offered a more comprehensive look at the city’s shelter population. The project was launched in January. Every day since, Brand has updated the tracker with numbers reported by the Department of Homeless Services and with those coming out of shelters run by other agencies. Currently, these other agencies are required to count the number of “unduplicated” people sleeping in their shelters each month. Taken together, these figures show that, for every month this year through May, more than sixty thousand people stayed at least one night in the city’s shelters, a number about twenty percent higher than that reported by the Department of Homeless Services. “These are people who need permanent housing, regardless of the agency serving them,” Brand said. “There is a kind of real-world impact, for example, of people being excluded from the count, and therefore excluded, perhaps, from the solutions.”

The tracker breaks down the data by type of shelter: adult, family, veteran, etc. It also shows how the city’s shelter population has changed over time. The data the city releases publicly is often published in hard-to-read spreadsheets or clunky PDF files. The City Limits tracker, on the other hand, is constructed as a series of interactive graphs where one can quickly find, for example, the number of children who stayed in Department of Homeless Services shelters on July 1. , or the number of people who stayed in disaster shelters. by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in January, the month of the fire at the Twin Parks apartment complex in the Bronx.

Brand and Evely told me the tracker has been helpful to them in brainstorming story ideas and coverage priorities. For example, Mayor Eric Adams claimed that a recent increase in the population of Department of Homeless Services shelters was due to an “unprecedented increase” in migrant asylum seekers sent to New York from Texas and arizona. But Brand was skeptical. The City Limits tracker showed a steady increase in the shelter population of around four thousand people since the start of the year – when a pandemic-era moratorium on evictions ended in New York, which, homeless advocates said caused the rise – and that much of it has been in family shelters. “The data you choose to present speaks volumes,” Brand said. “It also involves what you are trying to hide or obscure.” To get a more definitive answer on how many migrants have recently entered the shelter system, Brand filed a freedom of information request for the last known addresses of shelter residents — data he knows the city has. .

City Limits, which was founded by housing activists in 1976, has seven full-time staff. The New York City government employs hundreds of thousands of people. There is no practical reason why the media would be able to produce a more useful and comprehensive shelter census than the city. In 2018, then-Brooklyn City Council member Stephen Levin proposed a bill that would have changed the city’s shelter reporting to better reflect numbers collected by all city agencies. Bill de Blasio’s administration pushed back on the measure.

Homelessness in New York reached record levels under de Blasio, who saw fighting inequality as his central mission in politics. In 2016, he put Steven Banks, a longtime legal aid attorney and homeless advocate, in charge of the administration’s homelessness policies. (In the 1980s, Banks brought part of the litigation that enshrined a “right to housing” in New York City, which makes the city unique in the United States: anyone who needs a bed must get one.) By the end of de Blasio, the shelter population for single adults had increased more than 60% from eight years earlier, but the city’s family shelter population had declined by about 30%, and census figures of the Department of Homeless Services were down from where they were. when de Blasio took office – decreases that both de Blasio and Banks were proud of. Banks argued at a city council hearing last year that changing homelessness census reporting requirements would obscure those achievements and the decisions that contributed to them. “I think it’s important to consider apples to apples,” Banks said. “You would have to go back in time and adjust all the censuses of all the other administrations.” Levin’s bill did not pass.

New administrations often look at the data with fresh eyes. They also often have new reasons to do so. Adams, who became a transit police officer at a time when his superiors were revolutionizing data reporting in policing with the CompStat program, ran for mayor last year pledging to create a CompStat for other city agencies. He is an avowed enemy of the kind of bureaucratic silos that would keep data from family shelters and domestic violence shelters in separate official reports. Earlier this month, City Council passed a new bill that would revise shelter data reporting requirements by 2024. City Hall told me the Adams administration plans to make changes to the daily census earlier than that, in 2023. In June, Adams released a housing “blueprint” that, among other things, promised to improve homelessness data and metrics by taking into account all shelters in the city, and not just those run by the Department of Homeless Services. “Too often the government has tried to mock these numbers and fail to acknowledge the reality of our homelessness problem,” Jessica Katz, Adams’s top housing official, told a conference. release unveiling the plan.