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4 Ways the Next Mayor and City Council Must Do Better on Street and Subway Homelessness

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Homeless outreach in the subways (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

It’s easy to bash Bill de Blasio, and to be fair, he deserves it. When it comes to street and subway homelessness, Mayor de Blasio has failed in the same troubling pattern time and time again. When pressure mounts for him to act, he creates a “new initiative.” Examples include HOME-STAT, Outreach NYC, the since-terminated coercive Subway Diversion Program, and The Journey Home. Typically, these initiatives increase the role of the NYPD in homeless outreach, promise additional housing that doesn’t come to fruition, and show more creativity in their presentation than their implementation.

Homeless New Yorkers have had enough, as have many providers and advocates. Our next Mayor — to be elected this year and inaugurated January 1, 2022 — must lead with bold, transformative policies that reimagine homeless outreach from start to finish. Working with nine directly impacted homeless New Yorkers, we lay out a starting point here and through our new plan, the #HumanPlan.

The responsibility to implement the #HumanPlan may not lie solely at the feet of the next Mayor. If our next Mayor falls short as our current one has, the City Council must be more willing to use its legislative authority to protect homeless New Yorkers.

A bill introduced three years ago in the City Council, Intro. 146, is a perfect example of where the City Council could provide the leadership necessary to help people secure housing. It is desperately needed and truly transformative legislation, and if passed, it would increase the city’s virtually unusable housing vouchers to fair market value. The City Council, without the Mayor, could pass it today. It has a veto-proof majority and broad support from advocates and many politically-active homeless New Yorkers.

Enough is enough, and we cannot afford another four years of inaction and disappointing leadership. To truly address street and subway homelessness, we need commitments from the incoming Mayor, City Council, and Borough Presidents to create, fund, and implement an integrated housing plan that addresses the full need for permanent housing for all individuals experiencing street and subway homelessness, while also treating people with dignity.

To begin, here are four things our next Mayor, City Council, and Borough Presidents need to do to truly address New York City’s street and subway homelessness crisis. 

1. Reimagine Street and Subway Homeless Outreach
Seldom discussed in conversations around homelessness is the fact that, under the New York City Department of Homeless Services’ direction, the city-contracted outreach teams do not give people on the streets basic needs items like socks or water bottles.

The approach, under a motto “a hand-up, not a hand-out” falsely assumes that homeless people are making a choice to be on the streets, and if they were just a little bit more desperate, they would instead choose to come into shelters. This perspective quite literally equates socks, in the minds of officials, as a perverse incentive to stay on the streets. In reality, the only choice homeless New Yorkers are making is to avoid dangerous shelters.

The message from outreach workers, in moments of desperate need such as when someone is without socks, is that they cannot be helpful. Wet, cold feet? We can’t offer you something to warm them up.

How can people trust that outreach workers can secure them housing when they can't even secure basic necessities?

Outreach teams should not only be able to give out basic needs items, but they should build around it. Private programs like New York City Relief should be replicated by city-funded outreach teams, so homeless New Yorkers can come and see them while having a warm meal. 

2. Completely Remove NYPD from Homeless Outreach
Removing the NYPD from homeless outreach does more than just end the criminalization of homelessness. It helps outreach teams do their jobs better.

Nunu, who has lived on the streets for several years, explains why outreach workers should arrive with water bottles rather than with police officers: “Outreach teams come up to you in public with officers, and it looks bad. It makes us look like we’re doing something wrong on the streets because they’re not coming to us with food and water.” When outreach workers arrive with NYPD, Nunu and countless other homeless New Yorkers decline engagement because they feel this approach sends the wrong message — that they’ve done something wrong or that they’re in trouble.

Simply put, allowing the outreach teams to work independently of the NYPD allows them to build and maintain trust. Combining the removal of NYPD from homeless outreach with the introduction of giving out basic needs items will send the right message to homeless New Yorkers: Outreach workers are here to help you, not to criminalize you.

3. Actually Adopt True “Housing First” Model in Supportive Housing
Yes, New York City says it does “Housing First,” but no, we absolutely do not.

A true “Housing First” model is predicated on the idea that everyone is housing ready, and the onus is on housing providers to be “consumer ready.” Believe it or not, in New York City, case managers prepare homeless New Yorkers for interviews to try to get them into supportive housing units they’ve already been deemed eligible for by the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA). They do this because many providers screen out the most vulnerable clients instead of screening them in.

The Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center acquired the reasons for the rejections via the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). The results were appalling, and showed the extent to which the Department of Social Services (DSS) and Department of Homeless Services (DHS) take a hands-off approach to the supportive housing application process. People were rejected because of their mental illness, the very reason supportive housing would likely have been a great fit in the first place. (Note: Intro. 147, a bill that would document and publicize the reasons for supportive housing rejections, has been sitting in the City Council for three years.)

Our incoming city government leaders must end this practice, often referred to as “creaming” or “cherry-picking.” The way to do this is simple: End the supportive housing interview process (again, people are already deemed eligible, they shouldn’t have to interview!). At the same time, they must expand the availability of supportive housing by proactively working to identify and open sites across communities. As it stands, there is only one available supportive housing unit for every five eligible applicants.

A supportive housing bill of rights would help supportive housing tenants too. The City Council introduced, but has not passed, Intro. 2176, which would require supportive housing providers to supply a supportive housing bill of rights to tenants.

4. Make the CityFHEPS Vouchers Work for Street Homeless New Yorkers 
The current CityFHEPS voucher, the city’s voucher that homeless New Yorkers can use to find housing, leaves voucher holders with virtually no options. The voucher amount is so low that even the smallest of apartments are often out of reach for them. A recent report from NY1 showed that month-over-month, just 4% of voucher-holders find apartments.

 Unsheltered homeless New Yorkers always point out that there are many homeless New Yorkers living on the streets who do not need the additional ser vices offered at supportive housing. Unfortunately, because the vouchers do not work, homeless outreach teams typically try to get their clients into supportive housing rather than find housing through a voucher. Outreach workers see the “one available supportive housing unit for every five eligible applicants” as better odds than finding housing through the CityFHEPS voucher.

If we bring the CityFHEPS voucher up to fair market rate or the Section 8 rate, educate outreach providers on how to house people through the voucher, and provide them the resources to do this, we would see an immediate drop in street and subway homelessness. This can be done through mayoral leadership or through the City Council’s Intro. 146.

The four recommendations above, if implemented alongside plans like “Right to a Roof” that ensure the right to housing for all New Yorkers, would set our next administration up for success. Homeless New Yorkers, advocates and many providers are sick of empty rhetoric. They want to see action and compassion, not police and empty promises.

One question remains: Will they be up to the challenge?

By an Anonymous Homeless Outreach Worker, an Anonymous Department of Homeless Services Official, and Josh Dean, Executive Director of On Twitter @humandotnyc.

Two of the authors have been granted anonymity over fear of speaking publicly and risking their livelihoods.

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