Do New York City’s outreach efforts lessen street homelessness?

A person experiencing homelessness.
A person experiencing homelessness.
lev radin/Shutterstock

Do New York City’s outreach efforts lessen street homelessness?

Experts say many homeless people deliberately avoid city shelters.
October 8, 2019

Calls for New York City to do more for its unsheltered homeless population gained renewed energy after the murders on Saturday of four homeless men sleeping on the streets of Chinatown. The man arrested for the attacks was also homeless and had a history of violence and erratic behavior that led many to highlight the particular need to help those who are mentally ill.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has frequently come under fire for failing to address the city’s homelessness crisis. New York City has more homeless people than Los Angeles, which recently received scrutiny from President Donald Trump over its approach to homelessness. The vast majority of New York City’s homeless people are housed in city shelters, totaling about 62,000 people every night. But about 3,600 homeless New Yorkers continue to remain on the street, according to an annual count conducted by the city in January, though advocates have suggested that the surveys undercount the city’s unsheltered homeless population.

In response to the recent murders, de Blasio announced increased mental health outreach efforts targeting homeless people in the neighborhood, along with a greater police presence. Similar initiatives aimed at people living in the subway system have also received particular scrutiny lately, as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority hired more police officers after Gov. Andrew Cuomo complained about “quality-of-life issues” on the subways – including homelessness.

To explore why New Yorkers remain on the streets and to assess the city’s outreach efforts, City & State consulted five experts in the field: Lindsey Davis, senior director of crisis services at Coalition for the Homeless; Daniel Herman, professor at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work; Stephen Eide, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; and Josh Dean, executive director of Human.nyc, and Lynden Bond, policy and research director of Human.nyc.

Why are there homeless New Yorkers outside the city shelter system?

Daniel Herman: I’m sure it varies but I suspect most of those who choose to sleep on the streets or in other public places are people who, though aware of the shelter system, make a conscious decision to avoid it for a variety of reasons. Among them are the need to enter a centralized bureaucratic intake center, so clients don’t know where they will end up being sent, lack of privacy, fear of theft or mistreatment by other residents, the requirement to follow fixed curfews and restrictions on bringing in one’s possessions.

Stephen Eide: The main reason is because people feel like they have more privacy and personal freedom living on the streets and in the subway system. Other reasons include (the) shelters’ reputation as (being) unsafe. Most of the homeless have no good reason for not entering shelter. Whatever the shortcomings of the shelters may be, most street homeless people who move out of homelessness are going to do so via the shelter system. Shelters are unsafe? This past weekend’s tragedy shows how the streets aren’t safe either. Homelessness is not a condition that can be cured on a so to speak “outpatient” basis.

Josh Dean and Lynden Bond: People who choose to sleep on the streets or subways rather than the shelter system cite rational and legitimate reasons for doing so. The most common thing we hear from people on the streets is that they feel safer there than the shelters. In particular, we hear horrific stories about the shelters that serve as the front door to the shelter system: the intake and assessment shelters. Other reasons people may avoid the shelters is so they can stay with their loved ones, often their partners or their pets, who they may be separated from if they enter the shelter system. The most important thing to understand is that no one is there because they want to be. People aren’t service-resistant, rather, in cases where people are on the streets, they haven’t been offered the right services.

Lindsey Davis: Shelters are a life-saving option for tens of thousands of homeless New Yorkers. However, many individuals who live on the streets tell us they consider shelters unsafe, unwelcoming or too hard to navigate. The majority of those on the streets have tried shelters, but their experience there – which might have involved violence, threats, theft of belongings or simply a chaotic and unnerving atmosphere – was a negative one. They feel that returning to the shelter system requires a sacrifice of personal safety, of dignity, and of agency that is unacceptable to them. The streets offer a last resort to those whom the existing systems have failed time and time again. Street homeless New Yorkers stay outdoors despite the risks of exposure, violence and serious health consequences made all too real by the horrible attacks this weekend. The streets, despite all of their many pitfalls, are for many considered their best and only option.

How effective is New York City’s current approach to outreach for homeless people outside the shelter system?

Herman: I don’t have a good way to evaluate this question but my sense is that New York City devotes more resources to homeless outreach than any other city. I believe that what is really needed is more options to which people can be referred that are seen as safe, accessible and attractive to street dwellers.

Eide: Not very effective but it’s not clear that a serious effort to make it more effective would be worth undertaking. Outreach’s main purpose is to connect the homeless with available services and programs, especially shelter. It is safe to assume that virtually all the street homeless already know that shelter is available to them. We could, theoretically, invest more in outreach by sending out more teams, or teams with more highly trained – and thus better-compensated – staff. But there are any number of other homelessness-related priorities, such as supportive housing and mental health care, on which those funds would be better used than on expanded or enhanced outreach.

Dean and Bond: The city deploys outreach teams 24/7 in all five boroughs to help those who are unsheltered. However, the lack of housing options combined with the bureaucracy to obtain said housing makes it remarkably difficult for outreach teams to do their jobs, and subsequently for homeless people to get off the streets. Bureaucracywise, there is a confusing process for people just to be matched with a case manager who will help them apply for housing. This process requires that they are seen and documented several times, in the same location, to ensure they are homeless. On top of that, people must live unsheltered for nine or more months to be eligible for transitional or supportive housing. All of this leaves outreach workers in a difficult position where they need to maintain contact and a relationship with their clients until a space becomes available. The people who have it the worst, those who are homeless, are often left waiting for months or years despite doing everything in their power to get off the streets. The wait is exacerbated by the lack of availability in the safe haven system, which is at capacity, and the supportive housing system, where placements are at a 14-year low. In the cases where people are successfully placed, we must give credit to the outreach teams, who despite the nearly impossible situation the governor, the mayor and the Department of Homeless Services leave them in, manage to persist.

Davis: The Department of Homeless Services contracts with nonprofit outreach teams tasked with providing information and resources to those sleeping on the streets. For many, contact with an outreach team is a lifeline to information and services as well as a rare opportunity for a human connection, given how isolating life on the streets can be. However, outreach teams’ efforts are constrained by the limited resources at their disposal. Those sleeping outdoors often report that they are initially offered resources such as food, clothing or other referrals (about which they are often already knowledgeable) by outreach teams. While these offers are helpful, they fail to meet their larger needs for stability, safety and a sense of personal agency that comes only with permanent housing. Outreach teams are often forced to triage access to limited resources, such placement in safe havens – a low-threshold form of shelter, which is a far better model than what is generally available in the shelter system. This leaves outreach teams with fewer real options to meaningfully engage those to whom they cannot offer immediate placements.

How can outreach to New York City’s homeless population be improved?

Herman: One approach that seems to be very promising is the so-called safe haven model, which outreach teams can use as a place to directly refer people they have identified who are ready to try indoor living. An alternative to large institutional shelters, these facilities are “low demand,” meaning that people can come and go as they please, provide smaller rooms rather than large dormitories, and they do not require sobriety for entry. Services available may include health care, laundry and meals, and case management. Ideally these settings are a first step on the way to permanent supportive housing or other long-term housing options.

Eide: Outreach has a public relations component. The public finds it encouraging to see outreach workers out talking to the homeless – better than seeing people living perpetually in squalor and misery with no apparent government response. Outreach also plays a role in gathering data about the unsheltered, outside what we get from the annual (Homeless Outreach Population Estimate) or point-in-time count. We could always use more data about the unsheltered, so perhaps the city could be thinking about improvements along those lines. But my general point would be that, though outreach is necessary and worth supporting, I don’t think the city now needs to be thinking about making radical changes to what it’s doing.

Dean and Bond: To begin, outreach can be improved by acknowledging that people experiencing homelessness are the experts. Everyone should ask – and listen to – their thoughts and ideas for solutions. It’s clear that the city has made absolutely no effort to recognize their expertise, which is the very reason our organization exists. Any changes to the bureaucracy should focus on what unsheltered New Yorkers want and need. People tell us that they want an expedited process to secure case management, and from there, a more clear understanding of what they need to do to secure housing. They do not want to be waiting as long as they are. With that, the most effective way to improve outreach efforts is to invest in the back end. By increasing the availability of safe havens, supportive housing and affordable housing set aside for homeless New Yorkers, we reduce the bureaucracy up front. By adapting a housing first model, which has been successful in cities around the world, we would allow people to secure housing and address other issues afterward. The increase in housing stock would allow outreach teams to do their jobs far more effectively, rather than trying to maintain trust with people while the mayor and governor drag their feet on their promises to deliver housing.

Davis: We at the Coalition (for the Homeless) have never met an individual sleeping on the streets who does not want the chance to come indoors. To truly improve outreach efforts, the city must continue to expand access to its successful safe haven shelters while also creating a range of permanent housing options with supportive services that can be tailored to meet individual needs. A commitment to deeply subsidized permanent housing options could free up space in safe haven placements and ensure that more of our neighbors are offered an opportunity to engage in meaningful services and, most importantly, the chance to come indoors.

Kay Dervishi
is an editorial intern at City & State.
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