New Yorkers filed a record number of 311 requests related to unsheltered homelessness, including individuals in need of assistance or reports of encampments, during Mayor Eric Adams’ first year in office, which was marked with high-profile policies aimed at reducing homelessness.
In 2022, 311 requests for homeless assistance and complaints about encampments increased 27% compared to the prior year, even as the Adams administration began rolling out policies that removed homeless people from public spaces early in his term. New Yorkers made in total last year about 36,000 requests for homeless assistance and approximately 34,000 related to encampments.
Complaints about encampments and about people living on streets and sidewalks drove the overall increase: New Yorkers made 62% more encampment requests in 2022 than 2021, and 70% more requests about streets and sidewalks. Residents of Manhattan were far more likely to complain about homelessness than other boroughs as almost two-thirds of requests citywide came from there.
The policy shifts began last February, when Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul announced homeless people would be forced to leave trains at the end of the line. The move came not long after an unsheltered New Yorker with a history of mental illness fatally pushed a woman on to the tracks unprovoked.
But by year’s end, the city’s Department of Homeless Services received more complaints about encampments and referred more requests for assistance to police in 2022 compared to prior years — even though these requests often do not lead to people actually accepting shelter. Only about one in five accepted such assistance last year, according to 311 data.
Upticks in complaints also followed soon after the city made targeted street sweeps. Last March, Adams turned his attention to clearing encampments, sending police to sweep hundreds of sites across the city. But that summer, New Yorkers called in or filed about 55% more complaints about encampments than during the same period in 2021.
Likewise, after the November announcement of the mayor’s plan to forcibly move individuals experiencing presumed mental health crises from streets into hospitals, DHS referred more complaints to the NYPD, according to 311 data. The rate of 311 complaints about unsheltered individuals sent from DHS to the police doubled, from 3.2% in December 2021 to 6.5% in December 2022.
While the rise in 311 requests cannot directly measure the numbers of people living outside shelters, this trend suggests how perceptions of homelessness have shifted in recent years — and where outreach could be improved. Overlapping or multiple reports about the same instance or issue related to the same individual may skew 311 numbers, DHS spokesperson Neha Sharma said.
But the 311 system is also what the city’s homeless outreach team (HOME-STAT) uses to make assistance requests, according to a 2019 report from John Jay College’s Data Collaborative for Justice. HOME-STAT deploys outreach canvassers across the five boroughs to document and aid the unsheltered homelessness.
“We are committed to using every tool at our disposal to ensure that we are reaching every New Yorker experiencing unsheltered homelessness on our streets and subways, and 311 is a very helpful tool in our overall toolkit,” Sharma said.
While the annual street homeless count, also known as the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) survey, offers a controversial snapshot of the size of the unsheltered population, the advocacy and service nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless pointed to the city’s 311 database as a way to gauge the most visible unsheltered groups day to day.
The increased NYPD referrals also reflect the approach Adams has taken to homelessness in New York City, said David Giffen, executive director of Coalition for the Homeless. Adams has prioritized “making the city safe again for those that complained to him about the city being unsafe,” as opposed to addressing homeless New Yorkers’ needs for food, clothing, shelter, and housing, Giffen said.
Experts said the recent complaints could also suggest that Adams’ strict policies around public space align with some New Yorkers’ interests more than others. For example, 311 requests overwhelmingly come from Manhattan — with the highest volume of requests sent in from midtown and other wealthier neighborhoods. They are “a good way to understand where and when people are complaining,” said Eric Goldfischer, an urban studies professor at the City University of New York who has studied 311 requests.
However, many 311 requests do not lead to meaningful outreach. Following more than half of the 311 requests about individuals experiencing homelessness in 2022, DHS sent a mobile outreach team to the request’s location “but could not find the individual,” according to the city database.
How DHS service requests work
New Yorkers can report problems to the city online or by calling 311. These complaints are logged in a database published on the city’s OpenData portal, which is updated daily with information going back to 2010.
When someone requests assistance for a specific individual experiencing homelessness, DHS typically sends an outreach team to offer support, which often means connecting the person to the shelter system. Reports about homeless encampments are first directed to the NYPD, which checks out the complaint. If police do find an encampment at the reported location, they send this information to Homeless Services.
Overall, the outreach process tends to be ineffective because most people living on the streets aren’t interested in city services, Giffen said.
People are out on the streets not because they don’t know what the city has to offer, but because they have tried what the city has to offer and it doesn’t meet their needs.
“People are out on the streets not because they don’t know what the city has to offer, but because they have tried what the city has to offer and it doesn’t meet their needs,” he said.
Among 36,000 “homeless person assistance” requests made in 2022, about 20% led to an outreach team offering services to the individual — and the individual “not accepting assistance,” according to the 311 dataset.
Coalition for the Homeless has observed similar patterns, Giffen said. He referenced a 2018 study in which the organization surveyed 200 unsheltered homeless people living across the city: 77% of respondents said they had past experience with the shelter system, but it did not meet their needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to increased homelessness, as economic instability collided with a growing mental health crisis. While the city has seen some economic recovery in 2022, that has not necessarily reached “people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum,” Giffen said. Last year, rising rents displaced some tenants who had received “pandemic discounts” or other rent relief in the earlier years of COVID-19.
At the same time, the number of adults living in the city’s shelter system continues to rise to new records. On Jan. 30, there were about 47,000 adults and 23,000 children living in shelters, according to a daily tally by DHS.
Complaints reflect perceptions of the homelessness crisis
While rising 311 complaints coincide with growing numbers of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, experts caution that the complaint data are not a perfect reflection of where unsheltered New Yorkers may be living or the challenges they may be facing.
Overall 311 complaints have risen consistently since 2012 for all matters, the 2019 report by John Jay College found. These increased requests may reflect New Yorkers seeking to solve problems in their neighborhoods through government agencies, rather than through more informal measures — like directly talking to their neighbors — the researchers suggested.
Outside factors like location and weather can also influence homeless-related complaints. For example, more people complain to 311 in the warmest months of the year: over 7,500 requests were reported each month in August, September, and October 2022 compared to about 4,500 in January 2022.
When the weather is warmer, “people living on the street are more visible outside, and people who complain about them are more outside, too,” said Goldfischer, the CUNY professor. More complaints also tend to come from public spaces like parks in the summer, he noted, and may be impacted by public discourse.
Last summer’s uptick in encampment complaints may have stemmed in part from New Yorkers hearing more about the living situations in the news. “This administration has really stepped up efforts to remove those encampments, and take a law enforcement approach to homelessness,” Giffen said.
New Yorkers in certain parts of the city are more likely to call 311 about homelessness, in another reflection of the data’s biases. In 2022, about seven times more complaints originated from Manhattan than from the outer boroughs. Manhattan reported three-and-a-half times the complaints than Brooklyn, the second-highest borough.
Within Manhattan, the homeless complaints tend to come from midtown and downtown neighborhoods. One midtown ZIP code, 10019, which includes the Museum of Modern Art, some Broadway theaters, and part of Hell’s Kitchen, reported over 4,000 requests in 2022. In comparison, the entirety of Staten Island reported fewer than 500 requests.
“It does intuitively make some sense that those are areas where you’re going to have more calls,” Giffen said, upon reviewing the geographical patterns. Midtown Manhattan and similar neighborhoods have “more overlap between the presence of moneyed individuals and homeless individuals,” he explained.
Both Adams and Hochul mention the unsheltered homeless population when discussing crime rates, though research shows the link doesn’t hold up — both for unhoused individuals and encampments. The governor’s office recently stated that “major subway crime” had decreased 16% since October, following a push to get cops and mental health teams into stations. But NYPD stats released recently show transit crime was up 30% over the course of the full year.
New Yorkers may call 311 in the hope of connecting individuals who need certain services with the city agencies that can provide those services. In the current climate of overcrowded shelters and increased police referrals, however, advocates like Giffen suggest that 311 may not be the best resource.
Coalition for the Homeless has its own hotlines, while mutual aid organizations may provide food, clothes, and other resources. Some New Yorkers have also organized to support people facing encampment sweeps.
People living on the street “need access to permanent housing, to quality, voluntary mental health care, and to low-barrier shelters,” Giffen said. “And the city and state are really failing on all three of those.”