New York is Not Alone in Attempting the Impossible

By Donna Schaper

The most wonderful thing about Mayor de Blasio’s Safe Haven plan—to dramatically reduce street homelessness in NYC—is its boldness. Most of us don’t even think it can be reduced, much less have a plan for doing so. The most awful thing about the situation is that many New Yorkers are so far down the cynical path that they don’t really think anything can be done. But something can be done (even though everything can’t be done). Cynicism is a decision not to shiver with the cold—because you are so cold you can’t even shiver anymore.

So, first, what’s right about the mayor’s proposal? It comes from his heart. De Blasio has not had an easy mayoralty—which maybe no one does—but he, in particular, got to override the White House, which was hostile to cities, especially sanctuary cities. So why not defy lame ducking and do something that is not lame, like not clefting the poorest among us? As Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said at the rollout at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in December of this bold program, “The city has the money; the cardinal has the land. Do it—but don’t do shelter. Do housing.” Of course, she was right. Housing, not shelter, is the solution to homelessness.

To not have a place in your heart and a plan in your hand to reduce street homelessness is to be arteriosclerotic. You are in great danger of a heart attack. Your arteries are hardened. You might as well be dead. Cynics also lose their tear ducts. They forget how to sing, “You’ve gotta have heart. All you really need is heart. When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win…”

So, de Blasio is doing something sincere. “The Journey Home” initiative intends to reduce street homelessness by 50 percent over the next five years by increasing the street outreach staffing, adding 1,000 new “Safe Haven” beds to the current 1,800, and by adding another 1,000 supportive housing units to the number of those now available to this population. This does not eliminate street homelessness so much as take a serious bite out of it. The application of well-developed effective services is also very heartfelt, genuine, sincere, and likely to work for some of the people who call the street their home. Additionally, the project has relaxed the stringent rules that exist in most homeless shelters. People are sheltered close to the places where they have been living. They get to stay “home” in the afternoon and during the day. There are rooms with two or three people instead of dormitory style living. People get to live in the place they are currently in for longer periods of time and make “home” out of shelter.

The mayor is also putting the arm on many houses of worship—asking whether we can take people in if the city “retrofits” our spaces. It is not a secret that many houses of worship are sitting on land that could be used for the wider community as well as for its adherents. Moreover, if the city will help houses of worship to shelter, by putting in showers, beds, and privacy shields, mission consistency doubles. The city does what it can and should and so do the religious groups. The strategy is to retrofit places that can accommodate at least a dozen people; and the better price point for the retrofitting is with small groups of 70 or so. The program is state of the art housing thinking.

“Housing First” is an idea that is being floated by many professionals. It argues that we should just stop social services for people who are not in permanent housing. Why? Because they won’t do any good. People who have to move all the time are not going to stop abusing drugs or alcohol. They are not going to be regular about their medications or their therapies. They are not going to stop using emergency rooms for their medical care. What is right about New Yorkers’ cynicism about the plan is that it is not yet clear how serious the city will be in respecting the right of a person to keep living on the street. Many reports indicate that the transit police, over whom the mayor has little control, are rounding people up and causing quite the ruckus. Many people who live on the street prefer being there to a shelter. Why? A shelter has no privacy, you can get abused in a shelter, you are forced to obey orders, and more. City police are not using coercion, or so they say, and so representatives for the homeless think. The only thing that will cure street homelessness is housing, not shelter. Until that happens—and by the way, please note how many working poor and middle class people also can’t find housing in New York (take a deep breath and get less purist about better shelter as a muddling middle way)—the heart of mercy is to try to make the situation better if not perfect.

Poverty is not a crime and should not be treated as one by any policeman—transit or city.

My personal plan for street folk is to say “hi,” and look them in the eye and mean it when I say, “I wish I could help.” Individuals cannot help but people working together can, a little.

For now, there are some sweet things happening. The general manager of the Hotel Wales is offering to give away new beds, linens, pillows, blankets, and bath towels. His phone number is 212-289-6399.

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