The Real Life Give-and-Take of NYC’s Homeless Outreach Efforts

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Adi Talwar

December 12th, 2017: In the Upper West Side neighborhood of Manhattan, Miriam Rivera in Santa hat speaking with Housing Outreach team from Goddard Riverside Community Center. Rivera has been homeless for three years.

The Upper West Side is still draped in darkness as the headlights from a Toyota Rav4 cut through its sleepy roads. Before the sunrise fills the streets with its warm light, two social workers from Goddard Riverside Community Center’s Homeless Outreach Team are patrolling in the car that’s marked with a “Makes Frequent Stops” bumper sticker. Brian Rodriguez, who’s been with Goddard for six years, is at the wheel while Gavin Wilkinson, a three-year team member, is going down the checklist of client names. They start their outreach shift at 6 a.m., leaving from the Uptown office at 965 Columbus Avenue.

“We can hit Broadway, we got somebody at 90th and Broadway,” Wilkinson said, replying to his partner about where to start.

They pass by the handfuls of morning joggers and garbagemen, but their focus is on the homeless living on the streets. Their heads dart left and right scanning the streets for sleeping bags or scaffolding. While many residents see the city’s metal network of scaffolds as intrusive eyesores, Rodriguez and Wilkinson know they are ripe spots for homeless encampments or hangouts.

The two men are part of the de Blasio administration’s multifaceted effort to address the homelessness crisis, which bedeviled City Hall throughout the mayor’s first term as shelter numbers rose and the presence of street homeless intensified.

Public attention has feasted on the creeping shelter census, violent incidents in homeless facilities and ugly fights in neighborhoods where some residents mounted campaigns to oppose shelter siting. Beyond the spotlight, nonprofit organizations like Goddard Riverside Community Center—an organization that also runs after-school programs for kids and delivers meals to the elderly—are trying to help solve the complex conundrum of housing those who live on the streets. For all the calls for faster action to address the homeless problem, Rodriguez and Wilkinson’s experience demonstrates that getting people housed is a tedious, challenging process involving reluctant clients and limited housing supply.

Rodriguez and Wilkinson cover the early morning shift, finishing at 1:30 p.m. before being relieved by the night or weekend team. They are all part of Goddard’s uptown outreach efforts that spans 59th to 110th Streets, from river to river. The team is mostly tasked with engaging folks on the streets to ensure their immediate health and safety, but with the ultimate goal of getting them into some form of housing. And the first step part of that arduous process begins with their persistent outreach.

They know to look for public parks around Lincoln Center and Verdi Square that offer benches for the homeless to set up. And while the stone walls that border Central Park may seem mundane to passersby, Rodriguez and Wilkinson know to peek just over the park wall to see if anyone is sleeping atop the subway grates that radiate residual heat from the tunnels below.

They use a similar approach with many of the clients they encounter on a daily basis. They begin with a greeting and inform the person on the street that they’re part of the city’s Homeless Outreach team. They continue by asking how they’re doing, if they need anything at the moment, and if they’re interested in getting housing.

The clients the teams interact with are usually those who have chosen not to enter the city’s shelter system, whether because of bad past experiences involving theft or violence or refusing to enter at all because of the shelters’ reputation or other qualms. Their clients tend to differ from the families with children—many of them working people–who make up the bulk of the shelter population. Goddard Riverside’s outreach team only targets those who choose to be on the streets, and those are mostly individual adults who have had long stretches of life on the margins.

The responses the team receives vary. Clients who haven’t eaten in a while may request a bagel and something to drink, and those familiar with the outreach team will engage in discussions that resemble those of friends catching up after a long absence. But some clients are resistant, either ignoring the outreach team altogether or slinging expletives their way so they can be left alone to sleep.

“We get cursed out often and we have clients that don’t want to be woken up,” Rodriguez said.

For the difficult few, Wilkinson said they still check in on them, especially in colder weather and if they have certain medical needs.

“If they reject us, we still outreach to them weekly to see if they change their minds, offer them coffee,” Wilkinson said. “But rejection is something we’re immune to.”

Through countless interactions with the same folks, the outreach workers are able to develop friendships or enough rapport where the client can trust them. Rodriguez is often chatting with those who speak Spanish and others have asked for Wilkinson personally when approached by other teams as they often chat on a first-name basis. Many of the people they encounter recognize them and are thankful for their consistent desire to house them.

“I have no words. They are angels,” Miriam Rivera, who’s been living on the streets of the Upper West Side for three years, said. “I know all the programs because they help me. I’m very, very grateful for them…they [taught] me that you have to look for help.”

Rivera said she’s visited daily by either Wilkinson or another Goddard outreach member and that she’s hoping to live in Section 8 housing eventually.

Once the hard part of getting a street-homeless person to accept help is over, the outreach team then creates a file that logs how long they’ve been on the streets, where they usually sleep, and if they have any forms of identification. A social worker continues to check in with them until they’re added to the caseload where they can be helped with social services, like SNAP benefits and health insurance. And if all goes according to plan, the client will complete a housing packet and wait for an opportunity for a housing interview. The interview offers an opportunity for the client and housing providers to see if the placement and accompanying social services would be a good fit.

But the process is rarely that smooth as there are many difficulties in getting a hold of folks without a permanent address.

On the recent morning, when Rodriguez approached a group of homeless people outside a church that offers food and showers, Carlos Batista remembered the Goddard team member. Rodriguez said Batista had been on the way to being filed into the system but he suddenly fell off their map when he moved from his previous location due to nearby construction. Now that they’ve been reunited, there is the issue of scheduling a time to meet so that Rodriguez can restart Batista’s housing process. With no home, Batista said he’s not sure where he’ll be tomorrow, but he can meet by the benches on Broadway around the morning. The uncertain appointment is hardly reassuring but, for Rodriguez, it’s worth the effort of checking.

“Sometimes they just won’t be there or they’ll be somewhere else,” Rodriguez said of trying to find clients. “That’s where some of the frustrations lay, but you just keep it pushing, keep moving. You can’t really fixate on one particular client you can’t find because there’s a whole bunch of other clients that need help.”

The Goddard workers understand that getting their clients into housing is a struggle that requires plenty of patience. According to Goddard Riverside’s statistics, so far this year the day team has had 7,787 interactions with homeless people in their area as of December 16. Combined with the night team’s numbers of 16,318, the entire uptown outreach efforts have tallied more than 24,105 contacts with clients so far this year.

While the interaction teams have racked up high counts, getting their clients into housing is a different story. This year, they’ve only gotten 151 people into some form of housing, according to the organization’s statistics. They also housed 169 people last year, making for a total of 313 homeless brought off the streets.

The obstacle course begins with the time-consuming outreach process, where a homeless individual can need anything from a few visits to numerous years of contact before agreeing to get help. But the hurdles continue as most of them also have preferences of where they’d like to be or where they want to avoid.

“Clients who have been in city shelters don’t necessarily want to stay there because of how traumatic it is,” Rodriguez said, explaining stories of frequent robberies. “When they leave and they’re on their own, … they don’t want all that, they just want a place for themselves.”

While any homeless person who agrees to go inside can be placed quickly into immediate housing in the form of a church bed or transitional housing, most of them prefer to wait for an actual apartment to open up, according to the uptown outreach team’s program director Keri Goldwyn. But the city’s low amount of affordable housing stock proves to be another difficulty for her teams, Goldwyn added. Even when they get to the last step of finding a housing interview, there’s no guarantee of housing availability.

“At this point, even getting interviews has been kind of dry across the board for all of our teams,” Goldwyn said, referring to the meetings clients need to have with housing providers before getting a space.

When asked about the large difference between the contact numbers and the amount of housing placements, Goldwyn said her team is putting a ton of effort into getting people housed, but that there’s a “climate of limited opportunities…given what’s out there.”

“We can outreach all day and night, but if we don’t have housing for them, there’s not much more we can do for them,” Rodriguez said.

The city is doing a substantial amount of work on this front. According to the Department of Homeless Services, Goddard’s outreach team is one of three Manhattan outreach organizations, who are all managed by the Manhattan Outreach Consortium and has a $11.3 million annual contract with the city for homeless outreach. Several other groups cover the remaining boroughs and the subway system, totaling $38 million for the city’s spending on outreach programs. The city also launched HOME-STAT, a network that connects all the homeless outreach organizations, in April 2016. With the new program, the city is working on creating a name list of all street-homeless individuals and their accompanying files to expedite providing assistance to them.

The city’s homeless agency says the de Blasio administration has doubled the city’s funding for street homeless programs, from more than $41 million in 2014 to $91 million in 2018. The doubling down has equated to bringing 865 people off the streets in the last year, according to DHS. Mayor Bill de Blasio also announced on December 12 that the city will work with nonprofit organizations in converting “cluster site” buildings, where many homeless families stay in run-down apartments, into permanent affordable housing units.

However, groups like Coalition for the Homeless feel there is much more that needs to be done to fully address the growing homelessness issue. According to the nonprofit advocacy group’s report, there were 62,963 homeless people reported in city shelters as of October 2017. The numbers have stabilized a little as last year’s October count showed 62,306 homeless in shelters, but just five years ago in October, there were only 48,694 homeless individuals counted in city shelters.

According to Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst with the coalition, the city has ramped up its efforts to tackle homelessness, but the pace still needs to quicken.

“We are hopeful that the historic commitments to affordable housing made by the city and the state will help to alleviate some of that supply-side issue as those units come online,” Simone said, referring to the proposed affordable housing developments. “However we really do need to accelerate the timeline given the record needs we see on the streets and in the shelters.”

Simone said the homelessness solution of providing more housing has always been on the table, but that people need to be holding those in office more accountable for making good on their promise.

Meanwhile, the Goddard Riverside team is still making their early morning rounds. For the outreach workers, it’s a particularly draining process trying to change someone’s life for the better and to face multiple barriers along the way. But they say they are undeterred as they know the end result of getting someone in a safe, secure home is worth the struggles they face trying to house the homeless.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to improve their lives,” Wilkinson said. “You hear all the sad stories, but at the end of the tunnel, we’re trying to create that light for them. You just focus on that light at the end.”

One thought on “The Real Life Give-and-Take of NYC’s Homeless Outreach Efforts

  1. A few winters ago I saw a homeless guy totally covered in blankets sleeping in the covered area in front of an empty store, it was about 20° that morning. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead. Like a good citizen I called 911 and gave them the info, address, etc. On my way back I see two EMTs talking to the guy. I told one EMT that I called 911. He told me that it was the right thing to do but that this particular guy always refused medical assistance or any other help. The EMTs made him sign a form and then went on their way. Apparently this homeless guy had the property owner’s permission to sleep there.

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