special report

Punch Cards for Homeless Dangle Hope of Housing, Deliver Waits

Charmain Hamid shows the back of a card she says was given to her by a homeless services organization. Picture taken June 27, 2019.
Charmain Hamid shows the back of a card she says was given to her by a homeless services organization. Picture taken June 27, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On any given night, more than 3,500 homeless New Yorkers live on the streets, often because they refuse to bed down in city shelters they say are too dangerous.

Many share a goal: placement in apartments or residential rooms under a program called Safe Haven.

But there’s a catch.

To qualify, many say, they have to “prove” they’re homeless. They say they’re told they need to plant themselves in the same spot, week after week, so outreach workers can see them there and officially dub them “chronically homeless.”

Some of the homeless men and women have even been given cards with a series of boxes to be signed by an outreach worker after each “sighting.” The card resembles the punch cards high-end coffee shops hand out to customers, touting a free cup of java after multiple purchases.

“There is something not right with this,” said Charmain Hamid, 44, who has been living on the streets of the city for much of the past decade. “I’m sitting there all day to wait for (an outreach worker) to see me? That’s not going to happen.”

Charmain Hamid near Penn Station, June 27, 2019.
Charmain Hamid near Penn Station, June 27, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been grappling with the homeless crisis since he took office in 2014. On de Blasio’s watch, the number of homeless in city shelters rose from 51,000 to a record 61,000 this winter. The figure now hovers around 58,000 — including 20,000 children, as of last week.

Meanwhile, thousands of single adults live in the streets, sleeping in Penn Station, on sidewalk grates across Midtown, and in subway cars traversing the city all night long.

They don’t want to enter the city’s shelter system because, they say, it’s plagued by violence and drug dealing. The city’s own records bear this out: Internal reports document cases of assaults, robbery — even murder — inside shelters.

Not Enough Rooms

The number of Safe Haven beds has risen from 670 to 1,800 under de Blasio, according to the city Department of Homeless Services. Meanwhile, the city’s most recent count of homeless living in the streets hit 3,588 this winter.

“Demand has continued to rise,” Giselle Routhier, director of the Coalition for the Homeless, noted. “There are now more homeless single adults than there are vacant apartments with housing vouchers. The supply is not there.”

Routhier believes the “sightings” obstacle course makes it more difficult for chronically homeless people to get off the street.

Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for the city Department of Homeless Services, makes clear all homeless individuals have immediate access to housing at city-run shelters. But if they reject that option, the city outreach program known as HOME-STAT tries to find them transitional non-shelter housing, he said.

“We work with clients on an individualized person-by-person basis to evaluate who would be best served by each of the specialized supports offered by our HOME-STAT outreach teams, including specific safe havens,” McGinn wrote Friday in response to THE CITY’s questions about the “sightings” protocol.

McGinn declined to address whether DHS was aware of or condoned this approach. But a nonprofit advocacy group, Human.nyc, said it recently documented multiple cases of city-sponsored outreach workers telling the homeless they must be seen on the street repeatedly.

Some of those homeless individuals recounted their experiences in interviews last week with THE CITY. One provided the business card, with the signature boxes to tally sightings, handed out by an outreach team from the BRC (Bowery Residents Committee).

Charmain Hamid shows the front of a card she says was given to her by a homeless services organization. Picture taken June 27, 2019.
Charmain Hamid shows the front of a card she says was given to her by a homeless services organization. Picture taken June 27, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

McGinn said, “At times, outreach service providers will provide clients with cards as a way of helping them keep track of the outreach teams they’ve engaged with, verify that progress, and seamlessly continue that engagement where they left off if they should move and encounter other teams.”

BRC CEO Muzzy Rosenblatt wrote in an emailed response, “In engaging with our unsheltered clients, we respect them and recognize they initially may not want to share personal information, but without which it is nearly impossible to start a HOME-STAT case record that is unique to them.

“Therefore, the card we use is a practical way for our clients to be able to hold us accountable, demonstrate they are engaged, allowing us to best meet their needs as expeditiously as possible, including the ability to verify their engagement with various other outreach teams, and thus continue that engagement seamlessly,” Rosenblatt added.

Long Stretch of ‘Sightings’

Hamid told THE CITY she’s been given several different versions of how many sightings she needs to make the cut for an apartment: Once it was six to eight times, and she was required to stay in the same spot.

Some homeless people told Human.nyc they were flat-out informed they needed to be seen on the street for nine months before becoming eligible for a transitional apartment.

Of 32 homeless individuals living in and around Penn Station that Human.nyc surveyed between May 20 and June 3, 21 said they were told about the “sightings” protocol by outreach teams.

Hamid, who grew up in the Bronx, says she first tried living in city shelters in 2004 after she was forced to leave her apartment due to a domestic violence incident that left her fearing for her life.

At first, she was placed in a special highly secure shelter for domestic violence victims. But four months later, Hamid said, she began an odyssey in which she was transferred from one shelter to another across the city.

“Four transfers. That’s too much. How many caseworkers do you talk to?” Hamid recalled. “That’s the fourth case worker I have to explain my life to.”

Charmain Hamid, June 27, 2019.
Charmain Hamid, June 27, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In 2005, she says, she began living in and around the Port Authority in Midtown. That’s when she first encountered the outreach teams the city uses to convince street homeless to come in from the sidewalks.

For a time, she was able to get work and an apartment. But she says she lost her job in 2008 and wound up back in a city shelter. Soon after, she couldn’t handle the chaos inside and again fled to the street. Once again she, she said, she was back in the “sightings” rut.

“This is now eight times,” she said. “This is the one that pisses me off the most. They need to see me eight times at the exact same spot. But you’re harassed by the cops. The NYPD. The Port Authority. Private security. You got to move.”

Hamid said she was even told to get letters from a drug store and a 7-Eleven near Madison Square Garden where she camped out, stating that they’d seen her there regularly. She got the letters, she said, and finally earned the official designation: “I was chronically homeless.”

She said she was placed in a Safe Haven single-room-occupancy facility on the Upper West Side, sharing a bathroom and kitchen with multiple residents. But her room was recently broken into, Hamid said. Now she’s back on the street, saying that because of her experience with domestic violence she needs to live without shared living space.

‘Safer Out on the Street’

A few blocks away in Midtown, Todd Ackerman, 49, and his wife, Tabatha, 45, sai they’ve also experienced the “sightings” shuffle. They tried life in the shelters at first, but ran into violence and routine robberies. They’ve been on the streets for three years.

Todd Ackerman, 49, and his wife Tabatha, 45, say they've been living on the streets of New York for the last three years.
Todd Ackerman, 49, and his wife Tabatha, 45, say they’ve been living on the streets of New York for the last three years. Photo: Greg Smith/THE CITY

Last week, the couple said, they were attacked by a man who poured a cup of urine on them while they were sleeping in Midtown. He beat them bloody and robbed them of $40, they said.

Still, Tabatha said, “It’s safer out on the street than it is in the shelters.”

Tabatha says she was told by a BRC outreach worker they needed to be “sighted” six times to make the cut for a Safe Haven apartment. After three years, she said, they’d collected only five sightings.

Two months ago, she got a new caseworker, this one from the nonprofit homeless support group Breaking Ground, who told the couple they didn’t need six sightings. They said they’re now on a list for transitional housing.

A spokesperson for Breaking Ground, Jovana Rizzo, told THE CITY, “We begin assessing each individual’s needs and offering services immediately upon determining they are experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Every individual has a different story and set of challenges, and we tailor our approach for each person to build a relationship with them, earn their trust, and care for them until we are able to get them to agree to come inside.”

Providers’ contracts, including BRC and Breaking Ground, state that clients eligible for Safe Haven housing must be “confirmed as having spent any time on the street.” In keeping with federal regulations, the “chronically homeless” are defined as “clients reporting to have lived on the streets for nine of the last 24 months.”

This leaves different providers with different protocols to dub a person “chronically homeless” — and that’s a problem, said Routhier of the Coalition for the Homeless.

She said the coalition has also seen the punch-card from BRC, and noted that a homeless man trying to make his quota of “sightings” went to BRC’s office in March. He was told “that doesn’t count,” and was given one of the cards, Routhier said.

‘Not Enough Beds’

“What you’re hearing is indicative of the fact that there’s no process,” she said. “It’s all in the service of trying to allocate limited resources to whomever [the Department of Homeless Services] deems is eligible for that resource. I think that’s really challenging and speaks to the fact that this is a model of housing [the homeless] would take up that offer if it was offered — but there are not enough beds.”

The Department of Homeless Services and the providers who do outreach emphasize that helping the chronically homeless is a delicate task that requires adapting to the challenging needs of those who live on the streets. Officials say it can be difficult to convince to what they describe as a population often beset by substance abuse and/or mental health struggles to leave the streets.

“At BRC, we are pragmatic idealists,” Rosenblatt said, adding that BRC piloted the first Safe Haven program in 2006. “We do our work in the real world, with all its challenges, changing the things we can as we go. “

The de Blasio administration champions its HOME-STAT program — which sends outreach teams out nightly to urge street homeless to come indoors — and says it’s “helped more than 2,200 New Yorkers experiencing unsheltered homelessness come off the streets and subways and into transitional and permanent housing.”

In its most recent public filing on this effort, the Department of Homeless Services reports that as of March 31, HOME-STAT teams were now “actively engaged” with 2,200 individuals identified as “street homeless.” Officials have collected the names of 1,700 more.

But very few of the homeless contacted by outreach teams agree to come in off the street. On June 25, for instance, outreach workers made 456 “contacts” with the street homeless.

Only three agreed to placement in a city-run facility, records show.

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