A new group to help Times Square emerge from COVID-19 pandemic

A Q&A with Times Square Alliance President Tom Harris about the Midtown BID Coalition and what’s being done to connect homeless people with services.

Times Square

Times Square Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Times Square in the heart of midtown Manhattan, known as “the crossroads of the world,” was also the intersection of some of the biggest challenges New York City faced during the coronavirus pandemic. Broadway theaters were shuttered, tourists left and the local economy shut down. Unhoused people were moved by the city into the area’s vacant hotel rooms. The area also wasn’t spared random acts of violence, including when a man pushed straphanger Michelle Go to her death at the Times Square-42nd Street station in January.

Now, as the city recovers and continues to grapple with criminal justice reform amid concerns over rising gun violence, seven business improvement districts in the area have banded together to form the Midtown BID Coalition. The coalition – representing the Times Square Alliance, East Midtown Partnership, Fifth Avenue Association, Garment District Alliance, Grand Central Partnership, Hudson Yards Hell’s Kitchen Alliance and Madison Avenue BID – joined forces to advocate for safer streets and services for people in crisis who are living on the street.

City & State caught up with Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance, to talk about the area’s recovery and what prompted the creation of the coalition. Harris also discussed the Community First program, an effort he helped start to better connect the area’s resources, including housing and mental health services, with the people on the street that need them the most.

It looks like midtown Manhattan, especially Times Square, is definitely on a comeback by the crowds visible on the street. How’s the recovery going? 

I think Times Square is doing well. (The week of May 9), we had more than 2.2 million people walk through Times Square, and two of the seven days exceeded 2019 numbers. We’ve got 35 Broadway shows open. We’re seeing an uptick in domestic visitors. We’re seeing a lot of New Yorkers rediscovering Times Square as well.

Contrast it to when COVID-19 impacted this area.

Midtown was slightly unique in the pandemic. Everyone went home, and there aren’t many residents in Midtown, particularly in the Time Square area. South of 54th Street there’s not that many residents, at least in what we consider Times Square. We saw Broadway close when the pandemic hit. We saw visitors stop coming. And at the same time we saw the city, for all the right reasons, take residents that were in congregate shelters and move them into hotels. So Midtown saw a huge amount of people who were in congregate shelters put into those hotels. Unfortunately, those people came, but a lot of the services that they were provided with previously, didn’t come with them. That added challenges to the street.

Areas outside of Midtown didn’t seem to suffer to the same extent as this part of the city. Times Square alone is 0.1% of the city’s landmass, and 15% of the economic output. If you look at the entirety of Midtown, I’m sure that number goes up to a significant portion of the city’s revenue. All that was all gone.

At the same time, we had unique challenges in our public space with the decriminalization of a lot of offenses and the de-policing movement, coupled with more people coming from the congregate settings. These challenges seemed more acute in Midtown.

The Midtown BID Coalition’s creation in late April signaled that the area was taking steps to work with government on the area’s recovery. What led to the decision to create this coalition?

We saw the polarization that exists in our society now existing in public space and public safety. We had people on one extreme saying, “Take everyone out of jail – that’s a good thing – and just provide services,” and then we had folks on the other side saying, “No, no, no. What worked before is what’s going to work again. We need to put everyone in jail.” 

The Midtown BID Coalition was formed by looking at this and saying it’s not either one or the other. It’s both. We need to provide support for those people who are in need on our streets, and at the same time we need to give law enforcement and judges the tools that are necessary to do their work effectively. Our five-point plan was born from that, and it was basically to increase proactive resources and support for people who sleep on the street, and proactive outreach for people with mental health issues.

There’s no proactive strategy to go out and find people with mental health issues on the street and provide them with resources. Oftentimes it’s a reactive strategy to when things go wrong. When someone is released from jail or out of foster care, we need to provide them with a plan to be successful. We think that government needs to provide these programs with case managers to make sure that these people lead productive lives. 

Another consideration was that we needed to look at judicial discretion. Everyone was studying the problem, but we saw enough anecdotal evidence that suggested judges were releasing people who were reoffending. We needed to look at ways to deal with the repeat offenders. I’m not talking about the one-offs, the person who just had a bad day and was arrested, or it was their first arrest. No one is talking about bail or jail for that. But someone whose business is breaking the law, someone whose business is to be a criminal – there should be tools available to deal with them so that society doesn’t have to suffer. We can’t protect their rights at the expense of all of our rights on the streets.

We also saw a need to proactively cultivate and attract tourism in New York City. We think that there should be an investment in that.

The coalition wrote a letter of support to Gov. Kathy Hochul after she announced her 10-point public safety plan? What prompted that?

The Midtown BID Coalition is seeking balance. Mayor Eric Adams is seeking balance and so is Gov. Hochul with the announcement of her safety plan. We want it to be as supportive as possible and serve as advocates for both their agendas, which can create a safer Midtown for all.

How have both responded to the coalition?

Both the governor and mayor have been extremely responsive. They are really trying to do the right thing. We as citizens need to support them, and need to say we will not have the disorder that we have on our streets. Right now, there’s a tug of war over how much disorder we’re accepting. We need 2022 solutions for the challenges that we see on our streets.

You took action in piloting the Community First program with the Midtown Community Court to better address the needs of street homeless people as the pandemic was hitting New York. How did that effort come about?

In Times Square, we try not to be problem-spotters. We try to think about policy solutions and programs that could address the challenges that we face. What we saw very acutely at the beginning of 2021 was that there was a gap in the services that the city provided for those in crisis on our streets. We saw people who were unhoused. We saw people with mental health challenges. For better or for worse, the old strategy was to arrest them, and when they go before a judge we will be able to provide them with services. Well, we stopped doing arrests for lower-level, quality-of-life issues, and a lot of the needs for services were still present in those people on our streets.

Well, we’re the custodians of Times Square, and we are great connectors of people. And the Midtown Community Court, a problem-solving court, was doing phenomenal work addressing community concerns and challenges. During the pandemic, they, like many other programs, were closed. All these services that they could offer to people could only come two ways: Either someone came in the front door and just asked for help, or someone was arrested and came in through the back door. Both doors were closed during COVID. So we partnered with them and deployed peer navigators who had at their disposal, all of the programs that the Midtown Community Court had, as well as others like Breaking Ground for housing and Fountain House for its mental health component. We partnered with them and we took the show on the road. We met folks on the street. We tried to build trust to help get these services provided.

The city was so convinced by your pilot that it awarded the program with a $350,000 grant last year. How do you measure the program’s success?

Our measure of success for the program was No. 1, a reduction in the amount of people who sleep on our streets, and No. 2, the number of services that we provided, not offered, provided. Whether it be blankets, housing, mental health support, it was how many services we provided. Very, very quickly, we started to see results. When we deployed the peer navigators, we went from 31 people sleeping on the street to less than 10 today.

Everyone who becomes homeless, or who is in crisis on the street, became so for a unique reason, and they need unique solutions. That’s why we need to keep narrowly tailoring solutions and programs like this that hyperfocus on the individual with effective measures of success.