Homeless by the Numbers

More New Yorkers are living in homeless shelters than ever before. How can the tools of big data identify those families most at risk of homelessness early on--and prevent their entry into the shelter system?

Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP

Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP

If you live in New York, it’s likely that you’ve seen someone who 'looks' homeless up close and personal. But homelessness isn’t always visible. There are countless seemingly ‘normal’ looking families who move from apartment to apartment or shelter to shelter without the prospect of stable housing. Living in this constant state of flux severely impacts their ability to make educational or professional gains, and deepens the stress that poverty already has on their lives


The streets of New York house fewer homeless people than they did just a decade ago; yet, the number of people living in homeless shelters across the city is at a record high. According to advocacy group the Coalition for the Homeless (CFH), there were over 53,000 people in living in homeless shelters in New York during November 2013, including over 12,000 families with over 22,000 children. The CFH cites eviction as one of the top reasons families lose their homes and transition into to the city’s shelter system. Other reasons include overcrowded housing, domestic violence, and hazardous living conditions.

Shelter is a basic human right. Yet, as shown by Andrea Elliot’s Invisible Child, the story of 11 year-old Dasani story published in a five-part special report by the New York Times late last year, the living conditions in some of these shelters can be horrifying--especially for families and children residing there for extended periods of time. While the Bloomberg administration claims that the average duration for a family in a homeless shelter is 13 months, some families, like Dasani’s, end up staying far longer.


Homelessness Prevention Window [click to enlarge]

"Eviction is a major cause of homelessness for families who come into shelters," says Sara Zuiderveen, assistant commissioner of prevention services at DHS. "The challenge really comes in the targeting piece, making sure services are reaching the people who are most at risk."

But what if we could predict which families are at heightened risk of homelessness via eviction? At SumAll, we are using data from the New York City's Department of Homeless Services to develop a tool that predicts which evictions are likely to lead to homelessness. Our end goal is to develop a system that alerts social workers and advocates about possible homelessness early, so they can better serve those families at risk of entering the shelter system. We are starting to do this with the two visualizations below. 

"Identifying families at risk of becoming homeless early in the eviction process presents a huge prevention opportunity. We are in the process of creating the algorithm that helps find these families in need and detect future homelessness hotspots in New York City", says Stefan Heeke, Executive Director of SumAll.org.

The video above shows New York City evictions between 2009 and 2013; the dots in white highlight those evictions that led a family to enter the shelter system. Some neighborhoods, especially those in Central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, seem to flare up quite often. This indicates that an eviction order in that area is more likely to lead to a homeless family than not. But some areas with relatively low eviction-to-homeless occurrences still show instances of families experiencing homelessness due to eviction.

The above graphic illustrates the length of time between (1) an eviction filing, and, (2) a family entering into a homeless shelter. Depending on the borough, on average it takes 4 to 5 months to move from eviction notice to shelter entry. This delay may be due to the complexity of eviction process or the family staying somewhere else before resorting to a homeless shelter, in addition to other reasons.

Combining the data for both of these visualizations, among others, will provide social workers and advocates with a tool to predict the likelihood of an eviction notice leading to shelter entry, as well as the timeframe available for prevention. Our aim is for this tool to be used to decrease the number of families that have to resort to homeless shelters around the city due to being evicted from their homes.

Blogpost written by Amir Beshay, Mary Sitzenstatter, Ann Nguyen (Design), Chi Nga Pinky Chan (Video)

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