Today’s Read: Finding Shelter for New York City’s Homeless is a Bureaucratic Nightmare

Mayor Adams’ decision to remove unsheltered individuals from the subways and to dismantle encampments throughout the city has inflicted immeasurable trauma on our unsheltered neighbors. His strategy of pushing people out of the public’s view does not address the systemic failures that leave thousands of New Yorkers to reside on the streets.

The latest iteration of these counterproductive policing measures began in February with Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul’s subway outreach plan and escalated in March when Mayor Adams ordered City agencies to clear hundreds of encampments. The increased criminalization of unsheltered homelessness fails to address the root causes of why someone would bed down on the streets or in the subways, and it erodes trust between outreach workers and unsheltered individuals, which takes considerable time to cultivate.

The success of outreach workers largely depends on the availability of private, low-barrier shelter beds. Homeless individuals are more likely to accept placements in Safe Haven and stabilization beds because they offer individuals greater flexibility and autonomy, as well as typically more privacy than larger shelters. However, there are not enough single-occupancy rooms in Safe Havens and stabilization bed sites to meet the need, and new capacity is quickly filled. Instead, the main option outreach teams can offer unsheltered people is transportation to large congregate shelter facilities, which many people on the streets have already experienced and have found do not meet their needs. The Coalition’s 2021 report View from the Street found that more than three-quarters of unsheltered individuals interviewed had stayed in a municipal shelter at some point but considered bedding down on the streets a safer alternative. Many people are justifiably reluctant to sleep in congregate dorms during the ongoing pandemic.

To meet the immediate need and help people move off the streets, the City must open thousands of low-barrier shelter beds in single-occupancy rooms. In the absence of safe, private shelters, the misguided sweeps are merely displacing people from one street corner to another. As the Coalition recently said in a joint statement with The Legal Aid Society:

“Over the past weeks, the Adams Administration has upended the lives of hundreds of homeless New Yorkers throughout the city, destroying their belongings, inflicting trauma, disrupting their access to services, and failing to help people move into permanent housing or private, single-occupancy shelter beds where they feel safe.

We say, and most New Yorkers would agree, that this is the antithesis of ‘getting stuff done.’ This approach is counterproductive, and makes it much harder to connect people with housing, shelters, and services. These Giuliani-era tactics were tried decades ago and failed, only worsening our city’s homelessness crisis and harming the people involved. Notably, prior mayors conducted thousands of sweeps, but many New Yorkers continue to reside on the streets because the City has failed to offer them a safer alternative.

The solution to homelessness is housing. The City should invest in affordable permanent housing where our homeless neighbors can reside in peace, away from the elements and other dangers on the street.

But the damage has already been done, and this cruel policy will tarnish the Mayor’s legacy. The Administration can immediately offer real permanent housing and safe, private shelter options to people, and we implore the City to do exactly that, and to cease these cruel, pointless, and ineffective sweeps.”

In addition to safe, private shelters, investments in permanent affordable and supportive housing are critical for helping people move off the streets. However, accessing housing is an arduous and bureaucratic process that leaves individuals languishing in the shelter system or on the streets for years. Caroline Spivack and Brian Pascus highlighted the challenges of outreach and the dire need for affordable housing in a recent article in Crain’s New York:

Adams’ visible street clearings and the deliberate, often unseen daily work of outreach workers are two very different fronts of the city’s multidecade struggle against homelessness. Both seek to address the unsheltered population, which has doubled since the mid-1990s, even as city spending on homeless services has quadrupled—to $2.8 billion last year. But neither effort can be successful without the city acknowledging the crux of the issue: No matter how many interagency teams and outreach workers are combing the streets to aid unsheltered New Yorkers, there simply is not enough housing to move people to. And years of policy missteps have created a tangle of red tape to get people into the limited housing that is available so thick that people are often stuck in limbo.

“The city’s budget allocation [for homeless services] has mushroomed because the fundamental need of people finding a permanent place to live has never really been fully acted upon,” said Ellen Baxter, founder and executive director of the Broadway Housing Communities nonprofit. “Housing policy and homeless policy have never interacted well.”

Although gaining access to transitional housing can be a stumbling block, securing a permanent apartment presents much more formidable hurdles. Barriers can include exhaustive documentation requirements, residency restrictions such as income thresholds and administrative red tape securing city housing vouchers. Applicants who are selected for housing go through interviews—the scheduling of which can be tricky.

“Many of the steps in the process have been created with the goal of rationing a scarce resource,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless. “And it can actually have the unintended consequence of lengthening someone’s homelessness, because they’re not able to provide all the documentation.”

Mayor Adams’ criminalization of unsheltered homelessness is a return to prior administrations’ failed tactics. To meaningfully address homelessness, the City must move beyond sweeps and instead invest in offering safe, private shelter options and permanent housing.