“Shelters are not a stand-alone solution and just because we remove homeless people from our subways and streets doesn’t mean they have found a home.”

Adi Talwar

A supportive housing site for formerly homeless New Yorkers in Harlem.

Supportive housing is the key to solving the homelessness crisis. Why? Because when someone is drowning it does not make sense to teach them how to swim before taking them to shore.

New York City’s homelessness crisis has hit an all-time high since the Great Depression; but this should come as no surprise to most of us. Research published by the Coalition for the Homeless in January revealed what many of us at Housing and Services, Inc. already knew in the 1980s when we first started developing affordable housing: homeless adults in this city need help. If it wasn’t clear before the pandemic, it is now very loud and very clear.

Shelters are not a stand-alone solution and just because we remove homeless people from our subways and streets doesn’t mean they have found a home.

Supportive housing is a time-tested, humane and cost-effective way to both end chronic homelessness, and prevent homelessness to begin with. We use the Housing First model where all New Yorkers who suffer from addiction, mental illness and disabilities are welcome no matter their commitment to sobriety, religion or any other condition. You can come as you are.

Supportive housing provides on-site social services and round-the-clock front desk security. Upon admission we assign our tenants with licensed case managers to help them assess, face and address the issues that led them to become homeless. Providing tenants with rent stabilized leases and the support to attain additional rent subsidies they might qualify for is worth it. HSI buildings provide permanent supportive housing and make our tenants feel secure in knowing they have a home for the rest of their lives should they choose. When tenants can find more independent housing it is because they have the tools to succeed. This model is based on the belief that not everyone’s timeline for healing what is hurt is the same.

Our projects mirror the evolution of supportive housing under the “Housing First” model. We started in the 1980s with a converted Single Room Occupancy (SRO) facility, The Cecil, in West Harlem. It had shared bathrooms and community kitchens back in the days when many doubted that a project for the addicted and mentally ill could ever work. But it did. And The Cecil became an example of the extraordinary cost-effectiveness of supportive housing, with costs significantly lower than shelters, hospitals, prisons and other alternatives for the homeless.

We are proud to be leaders in the next generation of supportive housing with our new Bedford Park project with 107 studio, one-bedroom and two-room apartments, including 41 reserved for community seniors and low-income households. It has been brilliantly designed to be green, state-of-the-art energy efficient and beautiful with light-filled, well-appointed community areas and a rear court garden plaza. Our intent is to provide creative, transformative space promoting wellness and community. Security, cleanliness and functionality is not something that should be reserved just for the rich.

Here at HSI, we are thrilled to see the mayor’s plan to increase affordable housing stock—but we have seen promises to end homelessness before. New York City is now at a critical point. With help from city, state and private funding for our projects, HSI has been able to step up to this challenge and will continue to do so.

We must level up our crisis model in ways that not just keep up with the times but also look to the future of what affordable housing can and should be. Where some affordable housing developers see storms and clouds, we create buildings that serve as lifeboats that carry those in need towards healthier and more stable futures.

Jim Dill is the executive director of Housing and Services, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to ending chronic homelessness and preventing tenant displacement. The organization has created over 2,000 units of supportive housing throughout the city and counting.