To begin, it’s important to distinguish between seeing more people, and there being more people.
We are seeing more people living unsheltered, on the street, in the transit system, and elsewhere. But, that doesn't necessarily mean that there are more people who are homeless; only that they are more visible than they used to be.
If that's the case, then where were they before? And why aren't they there anymore?
Many places: hospitals, jails, and vacant lots to name a few. In fact, many would move back and forth among these various locations, and the streets and subways where we're used to seeing them. It's the reality of a life without shelter, often compounded by mental illness and addiction. Sleeping in doorways, arrested for a minor offense like public urination or drinking a beer on a park bench, and then a week or two on Rikers Island. Or, living with mental illness but unable to get medication -- or unwilling to take it -- and being hospitalized. Or, finding a parking lot, and being allowed to sleep there in exchange for keeping it clean.
For starters, the economy is booming and buildings are going up everywhere, on vacant lots where homeless people slept. Further, there's been an aggressive effort here and across the country, to reduce incarceration of individuals who aren't dangerous. NYC's jail population has declined by over 1,500 in the past two years. It's also harder get a bed on a hospital psych unit; the daily census in State psychiatric centers has decreased by over 1,000 (over 25%) in the past few years. Finally, the City shut down scandalous (sometimes criminal) “three quarter houses,” where you could rent a bed. None of these situations were permanent, most were short-lived, but they provided "shelter" to hundreds if not thousands each night.
Isn't there a right to shelter in NYC?
Indeed, there is, and many more people are using them; the city's census of single adults in shelter has increased to 13,518 over the past two years. But, many of the unsheltered prefer their autonomy to the structure and uncertainty of living in shelters. While many shelters are great, many are not; while a homeless person has a right to a bed, they don't get to choose which one they get. (For more on these issues, see: "Why Would a Homeless Person Refuse to go to a Shelter?" and "Are Shelters Safe?")
The result of all these coinciding trends, is that we are seeing more people living unsheltered at the same time.
Where in the past there was a revolving door between being homeless in sight and homeless out of sight, now there are more people homeless in sight at the same time.
You and I may both be homeless, but in the past, when I was sleeping in the doorway, you were in hospital,and our friend was in prison. Now all three of us are out on the street at the same time. In the past, the average passerby only saw one of us at any one time; now they see all three of us at the same time.
And that's why it seems like more people are homeless.
The good news is that for BRC's homeless outreach teams, it is now easier for us to work with someone on a continuous basis, motivating them to seek assistance and shelter.