housing

De Blasio Turns Corner to Put Street Homeless on Fast Track to Homes

A person sleeps at the Jamaica Center station, in Queens, on Oct. 2, 2019.
A person sleeps at the Jamaica Center station, in Queens, on Oct. 2, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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The city will create 2,000 apartments and beds in informal shelters in a bid to end chronic street homelessness in five years, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday.

The commitment to giving housing to people coming in straight off the street marks a change of course for the mayor in tackling the challenge of people living on sidewalks and in subways — nearly 3,600 at last count.

Meanwhile, city shelters are bulging with more than 60,000 people.

The announcement came as winter approached and a little over two months after four homeless men were beaten to death as they slept on the streets of Chinatown. The killings underscored the dangers facing vulnerable homeless people too afraid or unwilling to stay in city shelters.

“What we’re saying is, the people that we have known year after year to be in need, who have been out there, in some cases effectively permanently, no end in sight, we now know we can get those people in. We’re going to focus on them,” de Blasio said at Judson Church in Greenwich Village, surrounded by religious leaders and administration personnel.

The mayor said the new plan, which will be funded by taxpayers, will cost about $100 million in the coming fiscal year — bringing the city’s annual tab for street homelessness programs to $240 million, according to Department of Social Services officials.

From Street to Home

De Blasio said private developers and nonprofits will create 1,000 units of permanent housing — with medical, mental health and other supports — that will for the first time allow the homeless to quickly go from the street directly to an apartment.

People living on the street currently endure a lengthy evaluation and application process to get into supportive housing and other permanent placements. They also have to prove they’ve been on the streets for a set amount of time to secure a bed in an informal shelter, known as a safe haven.

Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks on homelessness plan, at Judson Memorial Church on Dec. 17, 2019.
Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks on homelessness plan, at Judson Memorial Church on Dec. 17, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/The CITY

Officials said they’ll expand the number of beds available in safe havens — which are smaller, less-regulated and less-strict versions of shelters — from roughly 1,800 to 2,800. Many of the new beds will be supplied with the help of religious organizations, including the Archdiocese of New York, de Blasio said.

The announcement represented a pivot for de Blasio, who only last month insisted the key to helping people living on the streets wasn’t more beds, but more outreach.

“The problem here is not [that] we don’t have a place to get someone that’s safe and where we can get them mental health services and substance misuse services. We have that,” he said at a Nov. 14 news conference in Manhattan. “It’s getting people to come in.”

Advocates for the homeless said the new push aligns closely with what they’ve been demanding: Alternatives to traditional shelters that many homeless people see as unsafe, overly regimented and offering little privacy.

The concerns are particularly acute for intake centers, which are single adults’ entry point into the city’s homeless services system. The centers are larger than other shelters and have a reputation among homeless people for violence and other criminal activity.

“It’s a really important shift in how the administration has been handling homeless policy — particularly for folks who are on the street,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless. “Up until now every announcement has been about expanding outreach, expanding surveillance… but not adding the resources that people need, which is housing.”

Pushback on Policing

In June, the administration announced a pilot program that would offer homeless people who break MTA subway rules an opportunity to avoid a summons if they agree to engage with social service workers who help them get shelter. The program expanded citywide in August.

An outreach worker listens to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s homeless plan, at Judson Memorial Church, Dec. 17, 2019.
An outreach worker listens to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s homeless plan, at Judson Memorial Church, Dec. 17, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

That same month, the city also launched a Joint Crisis Coordination Center in Brooklyn where NYPD and Department of Social Services personnel monitor subway system cameras for homeless individuals in real time.

Both moves prompted complaints from advocates, who question the city’s reliance on the NYPD to deal with the homeless.

Last month, de Blasio announced that 18,000 city workers are being trained to report the location of homeless people they encounter to 311 to trigger outreach.

On Tuesday, the mayor presented the new plan as the natural evolution of his administration’s efforts. De Blasio said the city has gotten more than 2,450 homeless people off the street since April 2016, when he launched his administration’s first comprehensive data-driven outreach effort.

That number counts anyone who has remained in a placement for at least four weeks, and who isn’t later encountered by outreach teams.

De Blasio’s new plan also offers rental assistance vouchers to the chronically homeless, and expands medical outreach to the streets in all five boroughs. The medical services had been previously offered in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

Slow Progress

Josh Dean, director of the advocacy group Human.nyc, called de Blasio’s announcement “great, great news” — depending on the ease with which homeless people are placed into permanent housing.

“We’re going to push hard to make sure they… get folks off the streets and into housing without forcing them to jump through hoops to prove they are ‘housing ready,’” said Dean.

But he also expressed concern about the city’s ability to create 2,000 new beds quickly, judging from past struggles.

In September 2015, de Blasio announced the city would create 500 safe haven beds at religious institutions — including 150 at the Archdiocese of New York.

More than a year later, that effort had yielded just 72 beds — a slow pace that administration officials attributed to building code issues inside structures that weren’t designed to house people. They eventually got to 500 beds by working with nonreligious groups.

Asked about those challenges given the new collaboration with religious groups, de Blasio said, “I feel confident that we can continue to resolve those issues and continue to get more safe havens.”

In August, THE CITY reported that halfway through the administration’s plan to create 90 shelters over five years, only 25 had been completed. On Tuesday, de Blasio said that number was up to 30, while insisting the effort was on track.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan speaks about a plan to address longterm homelessness, at Judson Memorial Church.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan speaks about a plan to address longterm homelessness, at Judson Memorial Church. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The mayor’s parallel commitment to create 15,000 units of supportive housing over 15 years — largely for people who have been homeless and are dealing with mental health or addiction challenges — also has been relatively slow out of the gate.

Through September, nearly four years into the program, fewer than 1,300 people had been placed into new supportive housing units, according to city data.

As for the latest effort, officials say the work is already underway, with 350 safe haven beds set to come online as early as next year.

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