New York City homeless plan for Christmas: Will it work?

As the holidays approach, New York City steps up contact with the city's homeless in an effort to persuade them to go to shelters. Is that enough?

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan/File
In this Oct. 9, 2015 file photo, a homeless man holds a sign asking for money while sitting at the entrance to a subway station in New York.

As Christmas approaches and cold weather sets in, New York City is expanding an outreach program intended to persuade its homeless population to go to shelters.

The initiative, dubbed NYC Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement Street Action Team, or HOME-STAT, was announced by Mayor de Blasio at a meeting Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Outreach teams have existed for some time, but haven’t always had the resources they need to make the kind of impact they are capable of,” Mr. de Blasio said.

As part of the initiative, the city’s current outreach staff of 175 will grow to more than 300 to cover an eight-mile stretch of territory in Manhattan, from Canal Street to 145th Street, and in some sections of the city’s other boroughs.

They will work to make more frequent contact with the estimated 3,000 people who live on NYC’s streets, in an effort to offer medical and other services and, crucially, shelter.

Other cities besides New York are also working on tackling homelessness. In September, after announcing a “state of emergency” on homelessness, Los Angeles set aside $100 million for the issue and pledged other measures like opening up public buildings to let the homeless sleep there during cold winter nights. And in Houston, a nonprofit called Second Servings of Houston delivers food that would have otherwise gone to waste from hotels, cafeterias, restaurants, and other approved venues to the 3,000 Houstonians who are "food insecure."

NYC’s Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor recently stepped down, but the city continues to attempt to address what has become a growing struggle, both for the city and the homeless themselves. Nearly 58,000 people in NYC are homeless but live in shelters operated by the city’s municipal shelter system, a number up 70 percent from a decade ago. Those 58,000 include 14,361 homeless families and 23,858 homeless children. Many of these individuals became homeless because of a lack of affordable housing, a point that de Blasio emphasized in his speech.

“In the face of skyrocketing housing costs, wages remaining flat, and the plummeting number of rent-regulated apartments, thousands upon thousands of families simply couldn’t afford their rent,” he said.

But critics of de Blasio’s proposed plan contend that rather than sending out teams of people to connect the city’s homeless with shelters, NYC should be focusing on expanding the availability of affordable housing.

“HomeStat and the additional resources the city is investing in outreach are an excellent start," Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, wrote in an opinion piece for New York Daily News. "But it’s imperative that the de Blasio administration simultaneously open additional smaller, safer, more [service-intensive] facilities, called “safe havens” and “housing first” units, enhanced by intensive case management.”

NYC’s Department of Homeless Services may be taking some steps forward in that area. In November, de Blasio announced a $3 billion-dollar initiative to expand the availability of affordable housing for the city’s homeless population, with approximately 15,000 units to be constructed or converted into supportive-housing units that would allow residents to pay just a small portion of their income in exchange for housing and medical services. While the first units are expected to become available within 18 months, the program as a whole is phased for completion by 2030.

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