homeless outreach

Ahmed Jallow

Outreach workers on the move: From left to right: Maribeth Gayle, senior housing outreach specialist, Goddard Riverside; Lauren Taylor, deputy director, Center for Urban Consortium; Woody Dismukes, housing outreach specialist, Goddard Riverside.

The walk started on Grand Street and then, a few blocks later, the outreach team headed north on Allen Street, carefully scanning the area for homeless individuals on a cold and windy Monday morning. 

After a few minutes’ walk, the team spotted and approached a wheelchair-bound man, who appeared to be homeless, panhandling by the entrance of the 2nd Avenue train station. 

Not long after that, on 3rd Street between First and Second Avenues, the team engaged a homeless couple who’d set up a pop-up tent underneath a scaffold.  Both interactions lasted only a couple of minutes.

Woody Dismukes and Maribeth Gayle are part of an army of homeless outreach workers who traverse New York City streets day and night offering services to the city’s unsheltered homeless. Their ultimate goal: To get those who are determined to be “chronically homeless” on the path of supportive or permanent housing.

Earlier this month, Mayor de Blasio unveiled a new strategy to reduce long-term street homelessness in which outreach is a central—and controversial—element.  Outreach workers like Dismukes and Gayle are on the front line of de Blasio’s effort. 

Trust as a goal

None of the homeless individuals approached by the outreach team on that frigid Monday morning accepted any services on offer, which can include referrals to medical and mental health providers or diabetes and blood pressure screening and, possibly, transitional housing. 

But to an outreach worker, even small engagements such as the ones that occurred are seen as a step towards building a relationship of trust. “It’s just a work in progress,” Gayle said. “It is not something that is going to happen overnight or in a week’s time.”

A key part of their work is to build trust with individuals experiencing street homelessness— a complicated and arduous process. At times it can take weeks or months just to get a person’s name, let alone convince a homeless individual—who is sometimes distrustful of the system—to accept services. 

A typical interaction looks something like this: “I introduced myself as an outreach worker. I just basically tell them I got here to check on them and just to make sure that they are okay,” Gayle says. “Every conversation looks different. Sometimes we don’t talk about services because they don’t want services,” she added. “So we just build a friendly relationship with them.”

Gayle and Dismukes usually start their shifts at 5:30 a.m. That time of the morning is an opportune moment because homeless individuals are usually asleep and can be easily found at certain spots. 

But they have to be careful: “I think for us it’s a little different than it is for other people since we are waking people up in the morning,” said Dismukes. “Usually the first thing is making sure that they know we are not trying to steal anything from them or trying to hurt them,” he added.

Coming inside

The city can point to success stories. It took awhile but Moore, 64, is finally moving into an apartment in The Bronx early next year. After 14 months at The Andrews, a temporary residence  in downtown Manhattan, Moore (who declined to give his full name) said a permanent home was “my ultimate dream.” 

But the road to permanent housing was not a smooth one. Before coming to The Andrews, he had been living on the streets for two years. It took outreach workers from Bowery Resident Committee four visits over three months to convince him to accept services, he told City Limits. 

“Safe Havens” like The Andrews are “low-barrier” beds geared towards street homeless individuals. Unlike traditional shelters, Safe Havens only take referrals from outreach teams. They offer overnight beds and provide case management services. They offer fewer rules and more independence than typical shelters.

A room at The Andrews.

At The Andrews, which is operated by nonprofit Breaking Ground, there is a sense of security and on-site caseworkers. There is a communal area and a small library. It was the little things that made Moore stay. “I went inside, and I was like, ‘Wow, a bed, a window. I can see outside,’” he said of the first time he arrived at The Andrews, where some but not all units have windows. “If I didn’t feel that cordial mood, I would have left here and went right back to what I was doing,” he added. The Andrews is comprised of 146 short-term living units, including 138 Safe Haven beds. 

Hitting limits

Safe Havens are one of the most effective tools available to outreach teams.  But those like the Andrews are far and few between. Advocates and some outreach workers have long complained about the shortage of Safe Haven supportive or transitional housing beds. 

An opinion piece in the Gothamist written by current and former outreach workers offered a glimpse into some of these frustrations. In the piece, current and former outreach workers complain of low pay and high turnover rates and limited housing options makes it almost impossible to do the job effectively. 

As of this year, there are approximately 1,800 Safe Haven beds dedicated to street homeless New Yorkers. With the promise of 1,000 more in the coming years, the total will be 2,800, according to the city. 

However, the city’s official count — which many believe to be an under-estimate — is that there are over 3,500 street homeless individuals.

Even Safe Havens aren’t for everyone. Ulysses Peter Malvan, 61, has been living on New York City streets continuously since 2013 after growing disillusioned with the Safe Havens and shelters. With all its dangers, the streets feel safer for him. 

Over the years Malvan said he has been engaged by outreach workers around half a dozen times. In one instance, he learned that an outreach worker with whom he had built a relationship had quit the job. It is experiences like this that have sometimes left homeless individuals feeling alienated. “I told this person all of this stuff and you don’t have any of it and I have to start all over again with you,” he recalls feeling about the new worker on his case. 

‘It’s housing, stupid’

The city said it has created a database with the names of all street homeless known to outreach teams. This database is accessible to all outreach workers and is supposed to help them avoid the sort of repetition that has left some homeless individuals feeling frustrated. 

Malvan said the reason he is still on the streets is because he hasn’t been offered the right type of housing. “I want more supportive housing that’s not warehousing,” he says. 

Some advocates who do outreach to the street homeless believe the lack of real housing options undermines the effort to stay in touch with people sleeping outdoors. 

“The challenge for me is you basically have to stay in touch and maintain a relationship or maintain trust with the person for a very long time without being able to give them any updates or any good news,” says Josh Dean, director of the advocacy group, Human.nyc. 

Dean, whose organization also does its own form of outreach, says outreach workers are not to blame for this situation. “We always make the point that outreach workers are doing their best in a broken system,” he said. “It’s all about the offer. When we are low on housing, it makes it really difficult for outreach workers to do their job,” he added.

Dean says conflicting messages come from city-contracted outreach workers. Some homeless individuals have said they’ve been told that they are required to be sighted a number of times on the streets before they can be considered chronically homeless, a scheme first reported by The City.

Isaac McGinn, a DHS spokesperson, disputes this. He said outreach workers offer services after verifying that an individual is homeless. “Upon confirming an individual is experiencing unsheltered homelessness, HOME-STAT outreach teams offer them shelter and services immediately—and all New Yorkers experiencing homelessness have a right to shelter at first encounter and every subsequent encounter,” he said.

While services are offered upon confirming that an individual is street homeless, this confirmation process sometimes requires a homeless individual to be sighted several times on the streets or sleep spots by outreach workers. According to DHS, individuals who have been encountered on the streets by outreach teams, but whose living situations have not been confirmed, are considered prospective clients. How long it takes or what methodology is used to confirm that an individual is in fact experiencing street homelessness varies depending on the nonprofit and their outreach workers.

“At the same time, we work with clients on an individualized, person-by-person basis to evaluate who would be best served by each of the specialized supports offered by our HOME-STAT outreach teams, including specific safe havens,” McGinn said in an emailed statement. 

Outreach evolves

Billed as the most comprehensive street homelessness outreach effort in any city nationwide, the HOME-STAT initiative was launched in 2016 with about 500 outreach workers. Over the last three years, HOME-STAT has brought 2,450 people off the streets, the city says.

The initiative has been augmented in recent weeks, in several waves. On November 14, de Blasio administration announced Outreach NYC, under which 18,000 city employees from the departments of buildings, fire, health parks and sanitation would be trained in how to use 311 to submit service requests about people sleeping on the streets.  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. 

Then  the mayor unveiled yet another plan that appears to address some of the concerns voiced by outreach workers and advocates. According to the announcement, the new plan will open 1,000 new Safe Haven beds and 1,000 new low-barrier permanent apartments and offer street medical care and behavioral health care. It will also “leverage state-of-the-art outreach technology to better connect clients to the services they need to transition into housing,” according to the city’s announcement, and “expand diversion and outreach in our subway system.”

The city is partnering with the Catholic Charities—which has committed five Safe Havens— and other religious organizations to create the new  Safe Haven beds. It’s unclear how soon some of these beds will become available, but officials say within the next year or so. The whole plan will cost about $100 million in the next fiscal year, said the mayor. 

The right bed

Advocates applaud the most recent announcement, especially the increase in Safe Haven beds and permanent housing. “We have been advocating for more safe haven beds for years now so that’s exciting to see,” says Catherine Trapani, executive director for Homeless Service United, a coalition of 50 non-profit agencies. “That’s really extraordinary and that’s what our clients need,” she added. 

Creating these Safe Haven beds is one thing and putting them in the right places is another. For some homeless individuals, it isn’t that Safe Haven beds are unavailable but that the beds are far from their comfort zones. 

According to Department of Social Services Commissioner Steve Banks, this will be taken into consideration when creating the new Safe Havens.  “I think the challenge that any outreach worker will tell you is it’s not whether we have a bed, but whether we have the right bed,” said Banks during the announcement.  “We may have a bed for somebody, but it’s in a different borough or it’s not in an area where the person would feel comfortable coming in from the streets because their comfort zone is defined by being in a particular area. So, a priority for us is to bring on more beds in the places where we’ve identified a great need for additional resources to bring in more people,” Banks added

Still, Trapani has reservations about the NYPDs role in the program. Dubbed “The Subway Diversion Project,” homeless individuals who agree to participate in the program will have their summonses cleared.  She said the use of coercion to force the homeless to accept services will make it difficult for outreach workers. 

“This idea that you’re going to have an officer tell a homeless person come to that outreach worker or else I’m going to give you a ticket or arrest you … they [officers] are not setting that outreach worker up for success,” Trapani said. 

As the city tweaks its policy, some homeless people make progress and others wait. Moore can’t believe his luck. He is so excited that he is finally moving into an apartment. All he ever wanted is: “to be warm when it’s cold, and be cold when it’s warm,” he said. As for Malvan, after a reporter ended their interview and left to go home on a rainy evening, he just sat back quietly in a chair. He had no home to go to.