The hiring increase worries some advocates who say the data collectors could erode the crucial trust street homeless New Yorkers develop with nonprofit outreach workers who develop relationships during routine visits.
New York City is set to hire more than 100 temporary workers to track homeless people bedding down in the subway system as overnight transit service resumes, officials said Tuesday.
A total of 112 people will begin nine-month stints as “street outreach associates” logging observations and reporting the locations of street homeless New Yorkers to the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) Joint Command Center, according to a job posting on nyc.gov. DHS now employs about 85 people who oversee and assist with outreach efforts that are mostly performed by nonprofit contractor BRC.
The initiative will pay just under $21 an hour to new hires tasked with “daily canvass observations, information gathering, and assessments,” the job listing states. The new staffers will also log “observations of apparent homeless individuals using handheld devices” and perform “low level engagements with homeless clients.”
The hiring surge comes as the de Blasio administration faces state pressure to prevent homeless New Yorkers from staying in subway cars and platforms.
Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks, who oversees DHS, says the staff increase will help accomplish that, but the city cannot force people into shelters.
“Accepting services is voluntary under state law, and unsheltered individuals who have typically fallen through every social safety net may understandably distrust systems that have failed them in the past,” Banks wrote in an op-ed for the Daily News Tuesday. “It can take months to help them come indoors, involving hundreds of engagements with outreach teams to rebuild the trust that will result in accepting services.”
Yet, the hiring increase worries some advocates who say the data collectors could erode the crucial trust street homeless New Yorkers develop with nonprofit outreach workers who develop relationships during routine visits. They also say the initiative diverts funding from actual housing solutions and portends a greater increase in homeless sweeps — an enforcement strategy they say fails to move street homeless New Yorkers into the housing they need.
“It’s just ridiculous how many resources are being invested in tracking a population whose needs we already know and understand — housing,” says Josh Dean, director of the homeless rights organization Human.nyc. “The city will basically have a map of all the people who want housing but won’t have housing to offer them, unless they change their priorities.”
DHS says its outreach efforts over the last year, mostly conducted by staff from the nonprofit contractor BRC, have helped over 800 people move into shelters after sleeping in subway cars and stations. The city has opened about 1,300 beds specifically intended for street homeless New Yorkers in the past 18 months.
“Just as we conducted round-the-clock, 24/7 subway outreach before the pandemic and the subway closures, we intend to do so when 24-hour subway service resumes, so we can build on this year’s progress,” said Department of Homeless Services spokesperson Isaac McGinn in a statement.
Overnight subway service resumed Monday after a roughly year-long suspension, with the city assigning 250 additional NYPD officers to patrol the trains and stations at the insistence of the MTA and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
DHS says the new staffers will not work in conjunction with the NYPD, however. DHS and the NYPD have stopped coordinating in the Joint Command Center, where officials plot the locations of homeless New Yorkers on a map, watch them on surveillance cameras and assign outreach teams or other city workers.
Instead, they will count homeless New Yorkers at end-of-line subway stations and provide them with some information about “safe haven” and “stabilization” beds, which have fewer restrictions than most shelters, according to DHS. The agency will also assign the new workers to eight “high-traffic subway stations” from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. each day while taking over outreach from the MTA at Penn Station, Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica Station.
A significant number of New Yorkers who choose to stay in public spaces experience some form of mental illness, and the majority say they first tried the city shelter system before determining it was too unsafe or insufficient to meet their needs, according to an April survey by the Coalition for the Homeless.
Individuals staying in public spaces, like the subway system, account for a relatively small but particularly visible portion of the city’s homeless population, which is estimated in the hundreds of thousands. During the 2020 fiscal year, nearly 123,000 different men, women and children spent at least a night in a city shelter, according to data compiled by the Coalition for the Homeless. An untold number of other New Yorkers reside in precarious living situations, where their names do not appear on a lease or deed.
There were 3,857 people staying on streets and subways on Jan. 27, 2020, according to the most recent point-in-time count conducted by the city. The census, known as the HOPE Count, is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and used to determine federal funding to address homelessness.
Dean, of Human.nyc, says the city is spinning its wheels by increasing the number of workers who collect data on street homeless individuals.The New Yorkers bedding down in public spaces want permanent housing, not more referrals to temporary shelters, he added.
“The mayor’s message is clear,” he added. “It doesn’t matter if people get housing, just get them out of sight.”