If the ultimate goal is housing, might there be a way to save lives and money by giving some people a key to their own apartment without the wait, bypassing the shelter system entirely? 

John Grima kneels near a memorial for a homeless friend who died in June.

David Brand

John Grima, a mainstay at the homeless encampment on East 9th Street’s “Anarchy Row,” next to a memorial for Jose Hernandez, a 71-year-old veteran who spent nights in a tent nearby.

New York City officials have cleared a modest homeless encampment on East 9th Street at least 14 times since the start of 2022, city records show. A sweep last month may have been the most unsettling.

On the morning of June 13, friends gathered to memorialize Jose Hernandez, a 71-year-old veteran who spent nights in a tent further down the block. He died of liver failure days earlier, leaving behind a long-time girlfriend and a welcoming group of New Yorkers who sleep on the sidewalk at a site dubbed “Anarchy Row.”

As mourners lit candles and stuck handwritten messages to the wall, about a dozen police officers who had been waiting across the street converged on the tent set-up to commence the scheduled sweep. Sanitation workers also moved in and, after a confrontation with some residents and their advocates, tossed a tent, a leather chair and other possessions into the back of a garbage truck.

A few minutes later, Hernandez’s friends decided to go on with the vigil. Still fuming after the sweep, Anarchy Row mainstay John Grima eulogized Hernandez, who went by Joe and always looked out for his friends. Grima delivered a clear message: It didn’t have to end this way.

“They have so many empty apartments, they could have given him one before he died,” he said.

New York City officials say 3,489 people spent the night in the subway system or a public space during the most recent annual point-in-time street homeless count in January. They are the most visible manifestations of the city’s affordable housing crisis, though they represent a fraction of the city’s sprawling homeless population.

But just giving them a vacant apartment, as Grima proposed, isn’t the way things work right now in New York City, with its unique right to shelter, vast network of temporary facilities, a shortage of affordable apartments and onerous procedures for moving into permanent housing.

“In life, I learned that idealism collides with realism,” said Mayor Eric Adams, when asked in June about moving people straight from public spaces into apartments. “There are people living on the street right now who are dealing with mental health illnesses…that can’t make those decisions.”

In that context, the concept suggests a course of action so simple as to sound naive. But is it? Houston, the country’s fourth largest city, has moved 25,000 homeless residents directly into permanent homes over the last decade and found that the majority stay housed after two years. The “Housing First” model embraced by Houston was first pioneered in the five boroughs.

“If Houston can do it, New York City can too,” said Catherine Trapani, the head of Homeless Services United, which represents nonprofit providers.

There’s a long road to get there at such a large scale: tens of thousands of people live in shelters while searching for permanent affordable apartments; the percentage of available low-cost apartments is at a historic low.

When it comes to supportive housing—units reserved for people with diagnosed mental illness or other special needs, which the mayor has repeatedly touted as the key solution to addressing homelessness among single adult New Yorkers—there are around 1,500 vacancies, according to Department of Social Services officials, down from around 2,500 earlier this year.

With around 8,000 supportive housing applicants, there are still not enough units for everyone at once. There is also the matter of time-consuming administrative and paperwork requirements, not to mention political will and attitudes that discourage “rewarding” people who have refused to enter the shelter system.

But consider a specific, entrenched issue that could be addressed: A small subset of New York City residents who cannot afford permanent housing opt to stay in public spaces rather than begin a potentially years-long wait in a series of homeless shelters with the goal of one day, hopefully, accessing an apartment.

The stick-heavy effort to drive them off the streets through coercive enforcement sweeps does not appear to be working, while at the same time diverting resources from other endeavors (two hours pay for 20 municipal workers assigned to clear the 9th Street encampment undoubtedly exceeds the cost of a month’s rent in a supportive housing unit). Likewise, the carrot approach—social services and a chance at housing down the road—isn’t so compelling for some New Yorkers who just want a place to live.

The city is already spending tens of millions of dollars to address street homelessness, with mixed results. The new budget invests another $171.3 million into end-of-line subway outreach and new specialized shelters, known as Safe Haven and stabilization sites, intended for people coming off the streets. The mayor’s office reports that more than 1,300 people experiencing homelessness have accepted some kind of placement in the first three months after Adams launched his subway crackdown—though it is unclear how many were repeat referrals or how many actually checked in. Meanwhile, police made 719 arrests in the first month of the subway initiative. The NYPD told City Limits they made another 18 arrests at above-ground homeless encampments between March 18 and May 4. 

Police officers in the NYC subway

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

NYPD officers.

If the ultimate goal is housing, might there be a way to save lives and money by giving some people a key to their own apartment without the wait, bypassing the shelter system entirely? 

“I would love that,” said Stephanie Sonar, a street outreach coordinator with the organization Center for Urban Community Services, during a shift in East Harlem in April. “If we were to just have 100 keys to hand out to people.”

So what would it take? 

The main obstacle to direct moves, at least the one cited most often by city officials and supportive housing administrators, is paperwork. 

Homeless New Yorkers who seek supportive housing must first compile a package of documents to prove their income and mental health eligibility, thus enabling providers to fulfill the terms of their government contracts along with additional requirements attached to low-income housing tax credits, which can be revoked for non-compliance.

“We always say we have a Housing First approach, but in actual practice we end up with a Paperwork First approach,” New York City’s Chief Housing Officer Jessica Katz said at a press conference June 14. 

“So that’s why we have this real focus in the plan on administrative burdens,” she added, saying a key component of the city’s newly unveiled housing plan is paring down those requirements.

In the meantime, a plan to move at least some street homeless New Yorkers directly into supportive apartments would require one or more nonprofit service providers to offer up their vacant units and allow tenants to complete documents while housed—even if it may be a while before they are able to collect rent. 

“We certainly have the capacity and the ability and the staff to do that,” said Volunteers of America of Greater New York (VOA-GNY) Senior Vice President Noelle Withers, who oversees housing and homelessness programs at the organization, which runs supportive housing at six single-room occupancy sites owned by the city, including some with vacancies. 

“We would need some financial support to fill in the gap if they’re not able to pay rent,” Withers said. She suggested that the city provide rental assistance vouchers to tenants in the interim and help with coordination among mental health providers and intensive case management teams. 

Thus, the plan demands city and state governments willing to take a bold and creative approach to housing, like guaranteeing rent and services payments while a new tenant completes the necessary documents. That approach would be an “incredible help” for addressing street homelessness, said a street outreach team leader who was not authorized to speak to the media.

“If they really do want to house folks, especially those most entrenched on the streets, they’re really going to have to allow for some flexibility or creative solutions,” the outreach leader said.

The person suggested that such a program could begin with a small cohort of people, like the homeless New Yorkers who a succession of mayors have repeatedly attempted to sweep off the streets, often to no avail. City agencies and nonprofit providers could also set aside units and target intensive services for individuals included on the city’s so-called “Top 50” list, a roster of street homeless New Yorkers who are among the most medically vulnerable, exhibit symptoms of mental illness and need the most resources. 

Supportive housing is not the best fit for many street homeless New Yorkers who just need an apartment, not programs, and may resist the requirements imposed upon them. At the same time, others require intensive clinical services beyond just case management. But there is recent precedent for a direct-to-housing model: New York City announced in 2015 that it had ended chronic homelessness among veterans, in part through an aggressive push to move former service members off the streets and into permanent homes. ​​

That effort was eased by significant funding from the federal government under President Barack Obama. Withers, from VOA, said the initiative also inspired deep collaboration.

“It was a real push citywide and all the agencies were coordinating at the same time,” she said. VOA housed 200 people, most of them staying in transitional facilities converted to permanent apartments.

George Nashak, a former DHS administrator who now runs the organization Care for The Homeless, called the program a model for future housing efforts. “As a community, we need to learn from this success and apply those lessons to end the homelessness of families and single adults in the shelter system and on the streets,” Nashak said at the time.

The history of supportive housing is marked by organizations overcoming the limits of what was considered possible or politically feasible—from converting single-room occupancy hotels into homes to, as the New York Times once put it, “integrating the most troubled homeless with everyone else,” to introducing the Housing First concept at a time when paternalistic notions of “deservedness” dominated policy decisions.  

The latest annual report by the Coalition for the Homeless urges the city and state to revive the Housing First approach. Despite earlier attempts, the method  “fell out of favor” because of costs and accusations that one organization which pioneered the tactic had allegedly mismanaged client rent money. “New York State stopped funding it, but the model is proven to work, has been replicated elsewhere, and has enabled many individuals to regain housing and psychiatric stability after moving indoors,” the coalition’s report states.

Shams DaBaron, a formerly homeless activist who goes by the nickname “Da Homeless Hero” and who consulted on the Adams’ administration’s housing plan, has advocated for direct-to-housing moves that meet people’s specific needs. “That is the goal,” he said following the June 14 housing plan roll-out.

City Limits interviewed administrators at six supportive housing providers for this story. Each said the situation would demand coordination between social service and health agencies as well as consistent support from on-site staff. Two said the concept is possible but would need government guarantees in case the tenant does not complete their paperwork. One said they were not sure it could work. And three said the administrative obstacles seem insurmountable for now, unless government agencies waive some requirements, especially when it comes to low-income housing tax credits.

“There’s a lot of paperwork,” said Nicola McVinua, policy director at the organization Urban Pathways, which runs shelters, Safe Havens and supportive housing. “And supportive housing is funded by a lot of different mechanisms—HUD [Housing and Urban Development], city, state.”

Indeed, some people do make the move directly from street homelessness to a permanent home after navigating the complex processes, which starts with submitting a birth certificate, social security card and multiple forms of identification. Those vital documents may have been lost—or tossed—while a person was staying on the streets, or at some other point in their lives. Sonar, the CUCS outreach worker, said she had one client make that kind of move, but the process took about a year. Obtaining vital documents was one of the main hurdles. 

Once applicants secure those items—no easy task for out-of-state or international paperwork— they must complete an extensive housing packet and screening process, which includes undergoing a psychiatric evaluation and psychosocial exam to determine their eligibility for supportive housing—Adams’ housing plan aims to eliminate this requirement—and submitting a detailed housing history, which includes the locations where unsheltered applicants have slept.

They must then prove their income to qualify for a rental assistance program, complete additional documentation if a building had low-income housing tax credit funds, secure an interview and win over supportive housing provider staff. One misstep, like a minor error on the housing packet, known as a 2010-e, could restart the process. 

The risk, McVinua said, is in “letting a person into supportive housing and doing the paperwork later only to find out they don’t qualify.” The question facing providers who might open units to people moving off the streets then becomes, “What would you actually do if they didn’t qualify?” she said.

Officials from the Supportive Housing Network of New York (SHNNY) said it’s a question they have considered. 

“Together we are working to identify and eliminate the unnecessary steps and reports, addressing what we all agree is a byzantine system in need of change,” said SHNNY Interim Executive Director Maclain Berhaupt.

Space in vacancies

Some advocates for the rights of homeless New Yorkers argue that the supposed obstacles are mere constructs—gates erected by the city, state or nonprofits that can be torn down.

“For people who are eligible for supportive housing and have an eligible application, there isn’t a reason they can’t just move people into housing,” said Craig Hughes, a supervising social worker with the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center. “The supportive housing industry in New York and its government partners have structured things in a way that they really are a landlord-centered industry that gets an extreme amount of power over tenant selection while receiving a vast amount of government subsidies.”

Hughes pointed to examples of a paternalistic approach by some supportive housing providers in the tenant selection process, which require people to “fix” themselves in the eyes of staff members before landing an apartment. Records reviewed by City Limits show providers frequently denying applicants referred for interviews because they “lack insight” into their mental health—even though the housing is by definition reserved for people with mental illness.

The denials continue amid staff shortages and processing problems at DSS, the city agency responsible for making referrals for supportive housing. 

The roughly 1,500 vacant supportive housing units aren’t enough to meet the full demand, but supportive housing providers could spare a few dozen units to move at least some of the most-in-need off the streets, said Karim Walker, an outreach worker with the organization Human.nyc.

Walker has slept in public spaces and in shelters after a holdover eviction left him homeless in 2018. He said he spent nine months in a Brooklyn Safe Haven and applied for supportive housing, but did not get referred for placement. He finally got an apartment when his name came up in the city’s affordable housing lottery, he said.

“I just wanted my own place,” Walker said. “I was not in the mood to go into a shelter or a Safe Haven. The only reason I did was because of the pandemic.”

The city’s housing shortage, coupled with bureaucratic obstacles, mean virtually no one gets housing immediately. In effect, “Housing First” now means New Yorkers can embark on a path to an apartment even if they are unemployed, using drugs or working on treatment for their mental illness—but a place has to actually become available for them to get a set of keys.

Adams has also seemed skeptical of direct-to-apartment moves, telling reporters earlier this month that the placements would risk a return to homelessness. 

“You want to get people in housing and keep them in housing by giving them the wrap-around services, the information,” he said at the housing plan press conference. “How to actually live in a house, financial literacy.”

Adams’ perspective seems to collide with the “Housing First” model that he himself has discussed in the past. In fact, a permanent home allows people to work on other issues more effectively, studies show. And even skeptics of the model say it saves money to provide housing for people who are frequently hospitalized, jailed or are otherwise considered “high-utilizers” of city services.   

Still, the term “Housing First ” is not taken literally in most government and nonprofit circles. Nashak, who touted the city’s effort to move homeless veterans off the streets, repeatedly called a new Safe Haven in The Bronx an example of Housing First during a ribbon cutting and tour in March. But it’s not an apartment with a lease and a door that locks.

“The term has been neutered over the years,” said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Jacquelyn Simone. “The original meaning of the term has been misconstrued.”

Adams and his predecessor Mayor Bill de Blasio have expanded the number of Safe Haven and stabilization shelters, which provide support services without imposing a curfew or other barriers that exist in the larger shelter system. There are now about 1,500 people staying in Safe Havens, according to daily census reports tracked by City Limits, up from less than 1,200 at the start of the year. That still isn’t enough, and some street homeless New Yorkers say they do not want to enter facilities that often resemble the shelters they have tried and left in the past.

Katz has said that a true Housing First approach could be possible, just not with the way systems currently operate.  

“There is no rule that says you can’t go from being unsheltered to housing,” Katz said at a supportive housing conference on June 2. “But as a practical matter,” she added, it is an ordeal.

For now, the idea of immediate moves into permanent housing may remain a distant concept, even with supportive housing units vacant. 

Last month, DSS Commissioner Gary Jenkins told a crowd of supportive housing providers and advocates that one major reason for the vacancies is that shelter residents turn down placements. He also said that he hears from people who say, “You should take them straight from the streets to supportive housing.”

“For some, that is the appropriate route because homelessness is an individual approach,” Jenkins said. “I can become homeless tomorrow and don’t need specific services. But others do. Others need assistance.” Jenkins said Safe Haven and stabilization sites provide a venue for people to complete the requirements before accessing an apartment. “You know there’s documentation, and we’re working on that,” he said.

On the same panel, city Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan, the recent head of a supportive housing provider Fountain House, embraced a true Housing First approach.

“I never really understood the attitude of someone’s ‘readiness’ for housing, You’re not ready for housing. You deserve housing,” Vasan said. “You might face other intersecting challenges that you need to deal with, but you should do that while housed under a roof.”

“Expecting different outcomes without addressing that fundamental issue is somewhat magical thinking,” he added.

Mourners light candles at a street memorial

David Brand

Mourners light candles at a memorial along East 9th Street for Jose Hernandez, a street homeless New Yorker who slept nearby.

Back at the Anarchy Row vigil last month, Hernandez’s girlfriend Amy remembered him as “an amazing person.”

“He was a great man—a fighter, not a quitter—that loved me a lot,” she told City Limits, while pointing to her heart. “I’ll always keep him here as long as I live.” 

She left the area later that day when the police arrived for yet another sweep, according to Grima and a friend. Grima said Amy had been hoping to connect with an outreach worker before the sweep. She was looking to move into a single-room Safe Haven and hoped to get a permanent apartment.

“We just want housing,” he said.

The next day, Grima sat once again next to his pitched tent, the candles for his friend beside him.