Will de Blasio’s subway homelessness plan be a train wreck?

Homeless advocates, outreach workers and cops say the mayor’s approach doesn’t address root causes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio riding the subway, his homelessness plan has been broadly criticized.

Mayor Bill de Blasio riding the subway, his homelessness plan has been broadly criticized. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s five-year initiative to end long-term street homelessness, announced in December, has been widely criticized: by the homeless, outreach workers, advocates and police officers. And these disparate groups agree on the basic thrust of their critique – that the initiative focuses more on looking like it’s solving the problem than on actually solving it. “I think a lot of it is optics,” said Catherine Trapani, executive director of Homeless Services United, which represents nonprofits helping the homeless. 

Last year’s point-in-time annual homelessness survey (the most recent count for which data is available) found nearly 3,600 unsheltered homeless people in New York City. 

The most controversial piece of the mayor’s plan is its expansion of the Subway Diversion project that began last summer. It allows homeless people violating transit rules, such as taking up more than one seat, to avoid civil summonses by accepting a referral to a shelter or other services. The city has argued that the program makes interactions between officers and the homeless less combative, while critics argue it does the opposite. Activists for the homeless have said that the program encourages officers to stop and harass homeless people who have violated subway rules more often than they normally would, which results in more summonses being given. When asked, a spokeswoman from the city Department of Homeless Services did not provide data on how many summonses were given to homeless people before the program was implemented. About 63% of the almost 1,300 times that homeless people were stopped by the NYPD through the program between July 2019 and November 2019, the recipient opted for the summonses instead of services, according to testimony the NYPD gave at a City Council hearing in January. 

Most of the street homeless are already aware of the shelter system and avoid it for a number of reasons, experts and advocates agree, whether out of safety concerns or a desire to retain more freedom, unburdened by shelter requirements such as curfews. “A lot of the outreach, particularly the outreach that is being led by police officers, seems like harassment and seems like criminalization,” Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst with the Coalition for the Homeless, told City & State. “If all you're offering people at the end of that interaction is the conventional shelter system that they have often made a very rational decision to avoid, it's not actually meeting their needs.” 

Advocates for the homeless have argued that aggressive or negative interactions with police officers may destroy efforts outreach teams have had to cultivate trust with those homeless people who may be wary of city shelters. The NYPD announced in February that nurses will be deployed alongside officers in an effort to put homeless people at ease. Homeless outreach teams run by nonprofits have already been doing the work police are taking on. Critics say the city hasn’t provided enough evidence that police are contributing any new help. “The administration has not been able to provide data on how many people they have engaged with for the first time through these enhanced initiatives,” Simone said. “And how many people were already known to outreach workers.” 

Even police officers, who are not known for sharing the progressive politics of advocates for the homeless, have been apparently frustrated with the plan. Human.nyc, an advocacy organization for the street homeless, and the Coalition for the Homeless published an anonymous letter the groups say they received from transit police officers, which criticized the initiative for encouraging arrests of the homeless to coerce them into receiving services. The head of one police union has also found common ground with advocates in blasting the plan. “Once again, New York City police officers are acting as a Band-Aid to cover up another of Mayor de Blasio’s failures,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said in a statement. “The NYPD’s current Subway Diversion program is not really helping the homeless, because there is not enough long-term investment in the mental health treatment and other assistance they need. People living on the subway are being temporarily cleared away, offered minimal services and returning the next day.”

Avery Cohen, a City Hall spokesperson, said in a statement: “Through the Diversion program, nearly 500 homeless New Yorkers have avoided unnecessary criminal justice involvement and more than 300 homeless New Yorkers have been connected directly with shelter, where we’re focused on helping them back onto the path to stability. The program is just one tool in our larger mission to end long-term street homelessness.”

Another piece of de Blasio’s outreach plan is focused on tracking homeless people, through strategies that critics have attacked as “Orwellian.” Through the Street Homelessness Joint Command Center jointly run by the NYPD and city Department of Homeless Services, the city monitors and tracks the locations of the street homeless and police outreach workers 24/7 through police street cameras. The command center is meant to work in conjunction with another outreach effort, which trains more than 18,000 city employees to use 311 to report sightings and service requests for homeless New Yorkers on the street. “That's what the administration seems to be launching all these initiatives around is to help identify where people are,” said Josh Dean, executive director of Human.nyc. “That's not the problem. Outreach teams know where people are.” The city also manages a by-name list of homeless people on the streets.

Outreach workers wrote their own anonymous letter in Gothamist in December, criticizing the 311 initiative as mostly reconnecting them to people they are already in touch with while having no new information to provide. “Bombarding a person already known to outreach with repeated visits from strangers does not build trust and can in fact alienate people even more from the outreach and housing process,” they wrote. 

Trapani noticed similar trends during similar 311 initiatives in the past. “If you looked at like the amount of times that workers were chasing a call, and then the person wasn't there anymore, they weren't homeless,” she said. “The game was like homeless or hipster: is it just some guy with a disheveled beard, you know? It was just silly and it was a waste of time.”

Arianna Fishman, a spokeswoman with the city Department of Homeless Services, said in a statement: “Our outreach teams will tell you – it can take hundreds of contacts/engagements, sometimes over the course of many months, or even years, to convince an individual to accept services and come off the streets. This underscores why every contact, every engagement, and every person to person conversation, between New Yorkers in need and those conducting outreach, whether outreach teams or officers, represents positive progress.”

One piece of the mayor’s latest plan did receive widespread praise: the creation of 1,000 new permanent apartments and 1,000 new beds for Safe Haven shelters, which offer fewer barriers to entry and fewer restrictions for residents than traditional shelters because being able to offer more attractive housing could get more homeless people to give it a try.

According to Trapani, the mayor should’ve stopped at just adding more safe havens. But since creating those beds takes time, she said he likely took on these outreach efforts to assure the public he is swiftly acting on homelessness. “I think this show of force is to show an immediate action,” she said.