Homeless New Yorkers Skeptical Of City’s Latest Effort To Bring Them Indoors
A month after the horrific murders of four men sleeping on the streets in Chinatown, the city’s response came last Thursday with the launch of Outreach NYC; a slight retooling of existing street homeless outreach efforts.
The additional $19 million in funds will go to creating an inter-agency command center or “war room” as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio described at a press conference last week. It will also fund the hiring of 180 more outreach workers and encourage 18,000 existing city employees with other agencies (like the Parks Department or the FDNY) to report sightings of homeless people with the city’s 311 app.
But some New Yorkers currently experiencing street homelessness fear Outreach NYC will just make their lives more difficult.
“I fucking hate it,” said Dave, a 37-year-old who’s lived on New York City streets and subways for more than three years, when explained the city’s latest initiative to curb street homelessness.
Dave was passing by Union Square on Friday afternoon loaded down with a large backpack and accompanied by his mutt Scraps. He asked that his last name not be used for fear his current case with one of the city’s outreach groups would be derailed. He’s been trying to find a housing placement through homeless outreach groups for nearly two years, he said.
“Once I see the psychiatrist I think that, I fucking hope that that’s the last part of it,” he said, describing weeks of meetings and paperwork, and a months-long setback after his first caseworker left the job without warning. “I want to go inside so badly. I would take the lousiest dive place. I would just be so happy to be in any place.”
Unlike most major cities in the country, New York is required to provide shelter to anyone who asks. But Dave, like many others who sleep on the streets and subways, do so out of fear and distrust of the violence-plagued shelter system. A murder in an Upper West Side shelter earlier this month, and recent reporting from THE CITY highlight ongoing systemic issues.
Dave said he’s seen the ads asking New Yorkers to call 311 to report homeless people to the city.
“It shows…somebody putting a blanket around a homeless person and like and offering them like this steaming like a bowl of soup and stuff. And that’s total bullshit,” he said. “When you call 311, all that happens is the police show up and tell you you have to leave.”
Whatever warm, dry or windless spot he’d been able to find is lost, forcing him to trundle on to hunt for a new place to try to rest.
“Some of my friends…we’ve even tried to make signs to say please don’t call 311,” he said.
Listen to reporter Gwynne Hogan’s story on WNYC:
Around Union Square, a handful of homeless people who spoke with Gothamist/WNYC shared similar skepticism and frustration with the city’s outreach workers.
“They’re just trying to keep track of the homeless people, kind of treating us like criminals. You know like if something happens over here, they know where we hang out,” said 23-year-old Caitlin Smith, who lives between the street and her car with her husband and their ferret. She sat wrapped in a comforter on a 14th Street corner.
“I don’t understand why they need to hire more [outreach workers],” she said. “Every time they show up here, they show up four at a time, talking to one person individually. It’s just unnecessary.”
Down the block, a DoorDash employee named Chris overheard a reporter’s conversation with another homeless person, and butted in long enough to say he too was living on the streets, trying to save up enough cash to rent a room.
“They keep writing my name down and like tossing me to the side,” he said, of outreach workers he’d encountered. “I’m gonna go ahead and live on the street and save my money and work really fucking hard. Because it’s easier to do it on my own then to get help from the city.”
The outreach workers are subcontracted by the city through several nonprofits. Their job is to make repeated contact with unsheltered homeless people, who are often struggling with extreme mental health or substance abuse issues, and cajole them into coming indoors. In many cases, people would rather sleep on the streets than enter the traditional shelter system, which is notoriously violence-plagued.
“You have to find them enough times. You have to win their trust. You have to understand their problem and then present them with a solution that they actually want to buy into,” de Blasio said at the Thursday presser. “So I think we now can say with some assurance, we understand the basic pattern.”
With the added funds the outreach program has an annual budget of $140 million dollars, which will go towards employing more than 550 outreach workers. The city claims their efforts have led to 2,200 New Yorkers coming in off the streets and subways into transitional and permanent housing programs. At the last count of the unsheltered homeless population that took place in January, there were 3,588 New Yorkers sleeping on the streets, only 300 fewer than in 2017, according to the city’s annual management report.
The program has caused its share of controversy. As has been previously reported by THE CITY, some of the nonprofits require multiple documented sightings of the person to verify that they’re “chronically homeless,” before allowing them to access a bed in what’s known as “Safe Havens,” which are alternatives to traditional city shelters. These sightings are tracked on business cards some homeless people carry with them, hoping to tally up enough sightings to get a bed.
In his wallet, for example, Dave carries four of these business cards that document nine encounters with outreach workers from Bowery Residents Committee, stretching back to April of 2018, still not enough to get him a housing placement.
And a recent scathing report from the state comptroller’s office found that at the Bowery Residents Committee, which has contracts with the MTA as well as the city to provide outreach work on the subways, workers spent more time in the office than interacting with homeless people.
50-year-old James Chimenti, who struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder, said he’d been in and out of shelters for several years. He’d recently been sleeping in a park in Astoria, though he’d come to 14th Street to try to qualify for food stamps at a city facility. With the temperatures dropping, he planned to check himself into a rehab facility and try to sober up, he said. He wasn’t counting on the outreach program for help, he said.
“They play games. They say they gotta see you on street fucking 10 times before they do anything,” he said. And by then, Chimenti added, “I’ll be dead.”