Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Back in 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio joined Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks, then-Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph J. Esposito and outreach workers at the 2nd Avenue subway station where they engaged two homeless individuals on the platform and were able to convince one of the men to agree to move into transitional housing.

Could anyone argue against more engagement of the kind Mayor de Blasio unveiled late last month, when he announced plans to enlist 18,000 city workers as the eyes and ears of a rejuvenated effort to identify street homeless New Yorkers so outreach workers can contact them and try to get them to come inside?

Well, yes.

At least some homelessness advocates believe the initiative is a waste of resources that gives outreach workers what they don’t need—intel on where street-sleepers are bedding down—instead of what they very much require: more beds to offer the street homeless who don’t want to deal with the entrance barriers of traditional shelters and the safety concerns that dog many of those facilities.

On November 14, de Blasio announced the launch of Outreach NYC, under which 18,000 city employees from the departments of buildings, fire, health, parks and sanitation are being trained in how to use 311 to submit service requests about people sleeping on the street.

Those service requests, according to City Hall, will be sent on to the city’s new Joint Command Center, where staff from the Department of Homeless Services and NYPD “will analyze trends, triage requests, and prioritize and deploy multi-agency responses as appropriate, including to provide collaborative assistance to more challenging cases involving high-needs individuals.”

Twelve days later, de Blasio added another dimension to Outreach NYC: family members and friends of the street homeless. If someone calls 311 about a homeless person on the street, mentions that they are a relative or friend, and expresses a willingness to re-connect, that sentiment and the caller’s contact info will be noted.

“In the event that an unsheltered New Yorker gives outreach teams’ permission for their confidential client case information to be shared with those family members or friends, DHS will make every effort to facilitate that reconnection so that the individual may ultimately be helped off the street by that family or friend,” said City Hall in a statement.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the citywide challenge of homelessness. New interventions and innovative approaches like this help the City increase the pathways off the streets and options available to New Yorkers in need who are ready to make that transition.”

Innovation, take 2

Outreach NYC is itself an iteration of HOME-STAT, a four-pronged engagement effort the city rolled out in 2016. That was billed as “the most comprehensive street homelessness outreach effort ever deployed in a major American city.”

HOME-STAT offered “proactive canvassing”—a weekly survey of every block in Manhattan from Canal Street to 145th Street and of “hot spots” in the outer boroughs. Canvassers would call in homeless sightings to 311. HOME-STAT also included quarterly nighttime counts, the creation of several digital dashboards to track street homelessness, and a promise to “ensure that individuals identified through HOME-STAT and the city’s contracted Street Outreach Teams get the services they need.”

The de Blasio administration counts HOME-STAT as a success, saying it has helped the city to get more than 2,200 street-homeless people off the streets.

But for at least some advocates, HOME-STAT is a cautionary tale. Josh Dean, co-founder of the homeless outreach organization Human.nyc, says all the proactive canvassing did was cause “a 13-time increase in 311 calls, which lead outreach teams to be running all over the city, unable to find the people they were looking to help.” (Dean has even created an animation of this sequence of events.)

The quarterly nighttime counts ceased in fall of 2017, one of the digital dashboards has been broken for months and the effort to get street homeless individuals “all the services they need” seems to have fallen short, since thousands remain on the street.

What’s needed: intel or beds?

The mayor’s new proposals do not consist merely of new ways to use 311. De Blasio also announced a plan to hire 180 new outreach workers—employed by non-profits who contract with the city—bringing the count to 550, three times what the city had when the mayor took office.

City officials acknowledge that HOME-STAT was a crude tool in its early days, but say it has been refined. They also note that anyone can call 311 about a street homeless person—those motivated by compassion, by a sense of civic duty, or by plain anger at the presence of street homeless. Different kinds of callers might provide the 311 operator with different levels of detail, and the success of each outreach can depend on that.

DHS boasts that over time, it has been able to build “the city’s first-ever by-name list of individuals known to be homeless and residing on the streets” which will allow the outreach teams “to directly and repeatedly engage.” This, according to DHS, addresses another fact of life reflected in the low-success rate of 311 homelessness calls: Many street homeless people need a lot of convincing to come off the streets, including lots and lots of 311 reports and outreach contacts before enough trust is built up that they accept help.

But that’s at odd with what some in the homeless policy sector see.

“The calls I get from constituents who live on the street are not concerns about talking to enough outreach workers,” Councilmember Stephen Levin said in a statement after the launch of Outreach NYC. “It’s that interactions with outreach staff can often be frustrating because they are not able to provide what a person needs.”

In line with the general critique of the mayor’s homelessness plan, the knock on Outreach NYC is that it offers a way to manage the problem instead of providing more permanent housing that could solve it. City Hall has resisted a proposed Council law that would require 15 percent of units in every subsidized development to be set aside for people leaving homeless shelters. Strengthening housing vouchers and improving health- and mental-health services are among other recommendations.

A need for safe havens

Many believe the city needs to offer not more outreach but more Safe Haven beds. The Safe Havens, started under Mayor Bloomberg in 2006, are a “low-threshold” track of the shelter system offering more private spaces and fewer rules. They’re intended to attract street homeless who reject traditional shelters. De Blasio has increased the number of Safe Haven beds from 600 to 1,800 with a goal of having 2,100.

Advocates want more like 3,000. But they also want the city to think about shelter rules that pose barriers to the street homeless accessing shelters. Since intake and assessment shelters are typically the most problematic in the system, perhaps the city could try doing some direct placements to the program shelters that provide the most stable housing in the system, allowing people to bypass the front end. And Safe Havens themselves now require someone to have been on the street for nine months or more, a criteria that could be relaxed.

At last count (Sunday, December 8) there were 1,061 people in Safe Haven shelters.

There are other concerns about Outreach NYC’s intelligence-gathering elements. “It’s also potentially incredibly harmful and sets a shocking new precedent because all calls to 311 will be sent to a central command center overseen by NYPD and DHS so they can track homeless folks in real time, creating a great risk of increased criminalization,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless.