By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Mayor Bill de Blasio was at the 14th Street Y last Thursday, November 14 to introduce new Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Dr. Raul Perea-Henze, and announce the launch of a new program to combat homelessness in the city called Outreach NYC, which has since been criticized by other local elected officials and advocates.
The administration said on Thursday that the initiative will mobilize thousands of staff members from various city agencies who will be accessible for outreach assistance via 311. The city is encouraging New Yorkers to alert 311 when they see unsheltered individuals with the aim of helping those homeless New Yorkers transition off the streets and subways into more permanent, stable settings.
“We believe that this kind of outreach effort is the key,” de Blasio said at the announcement on Thursday. “We believe that constantly engaging folks is the answer. And I want everyone understand, I’m not talking about a few times and not talking about a few dozen times. Sometimes we were talking about hundreds of times before it works. But it is worth it because every time, and we heard from the outreach workers today, the sense of victory they felt when someone did come in and they were talking about literally in the last days getting someone in off the streets, who had been on the streets for years and years. What a profound victory that is.”
The city previously announced enhancements to 311 in August and the newly-launched program will build on that to provide comprehensive training to 18,000 city employees in the Department of Sanitation, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Fire Department, the Department of Buildings and the Parks Department. The training will specifically be on how to use the 311 app to submit service requests related to individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness. The service requests will be routed to the city’s new Joint Command Center (JCC), which was announced earlier this year and is managed by the Department of Homeless Services and the NYPD. Interagency staff will analyze trends, triage requests and deploy multi-agency responses as necessary.
Local elected officials, however, criticized the new initiative, arguing that a lack of street outreach is not a main cause of homelessness and that other measures are needed instead.
“Instead of working to unify the work of agencies already doing effective street outreach, Mayor de Blasio will further burden our 311 system, in an effort that will not make a real difference in getting New Yorkers off the street,” said Brooklyn Councilmember Robert Cornegy. “New Yorkers are not living on the street because they have not been reached out to. It is because there are not enough safe, hygienic and low-barrier resources available to persuade people to come in. Low-threshold interventions like safe havens and housing first policies have been found to be incredibly effective in getting people experiencing homelessness stably housed. We must support the provision of more safe havens, affordable, supportive and workforce housing and truly marshal our efforts towards addressing the root causes of homelessness.”
Councilmember Stephen Levin, also a representative from Brooklyn, agreed that additional outreach services will only burden the 311 system.
“The fact is, we’ve seen a version of this policy before,” Levin said. “In 2016, when HOME-STAT was first implemented, proactive canvassers were hired to drive calls into 311. The call surge did not lead to a reduction in homelessness, but it did lead to an overburdening of street outreach workers who were pulled away from the localized relationship-building work with clients to instead chase an onslaught of new 311 reports.”
Local news website Gothamist also spoke with homeless people near Union Square this week who were frustrated by the city’s latest efforts, arguing that additional outreach ultimately results in the homeless population being over-policed.
“[Ads for 311 show] somebody putting a blanket around a homeless person and like and offering them like this steaming like a bowl of soup and stuff and that’s total bullsh–,” one homeless man said. “When you call 311, all that happens is the police show up and tell you you have to leave.”
Another homeless New Yorker, Caitlin Smith, who lives between the street and her car, said that the efforts treat homeless people like criminals because it feels like a way for the city to keep track of them, and that outreach workers already show up four at a time so hiring even more seems unnecessary.
Levin reiterated this, agreeing that the problem is not a lack of outreach and that non-profits advocating for homeless people have argued that the city should instead be providing more access to lower-thresholds models of shelter like safe-haven beds because homeless New Yorkers often feel safer there than at large intake shelters.
“Staff already know where most people are located; they just need to be able to offer them real service and housing options,” Levin said. “The calls I get from constituents who live on the street are not concerns about talking to enough outreach workers, it’s that interactions with outreach staff can often be frustrating because they’re not able to provide what the person needs.”