Advocates for the homeless say the plan could amount to a continuation of ineffective policies if the city cannot follow through on the mayor’s campaign proposal to make supportive housing more accessible
Larry Thomas, 60, has been homeless since he was released from prison in 2017. Since then, he bounced around shelters from Kips Bay to Wards Island.
For him, shelter was a madhouse. He slept in a congregate setting almost every night surrounded by nearly 100 other people. “You ain’t getting no sleep,” he said. “Forget about that.”
On nights he wasn’t able to secure a bed in the shelter he stayed at, Thomas would take to the streets, going back the next night to reclaim his bed.
The choice that Thomas made is one that thousands of New Yorkers make on a daily basis — forgoing a bed in a shelter for the street, a park, or, in some cases, the subway system.
The city has begun to crack down on people engaging in the latter of these options last month, with a new initiative to address the rise in felony assaults occurring in the transit system, something that gained widespread attention following the death of Michelle Alyssa Go. Go was pushed in front of a train at the Times Square-42nd St. station earlier this year by an unsheltered homeless man with a history of mental illness.
Mayor Eric Adams’ “Subway Safety Plan” was introduced last month by the mayor alongside New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and other city officials. The primary goal of the plan is to address the city’s public safety concerns while supposedly supporting unsheltered homeless individuals.
The plan, which began enforcement on Feb. 21, focuses on utilizing street outreach teams and the New York City Police Department to get those sheltering in the subway into housing that could better support their needs. With vague details, the plan also commits to adding new safe havens and stabilization beds, establishing additional drop-in shelters, and expanding availability of supportive housing.
Advocates are appreciative that the administration has promised to further develop these programs. However, many are worried the plan does not effectively address how removing people from subways will disrupt the shelter system’s “revolving door” pattern — without the stability some other forms of housing provide, chronically street homeless people who enter the shelter system end up finding their way back outside.
“Repeating the failed outreach-based policing strategies of the past will not end the suffering of homeless people bedding down on the subway,” said Shelly Nortz, executive director for Policy with Coalition for the Homeless, in a written statement. “We need so much more.”
For Nortz and other advocates, expanding and making it easier to access supportive housing units is the solution to the problem Adams is trying to solve.
Supportive housing is designed to provide lodging on a more permanent basis, unlike shelters which are meant to provide individuals a temporary place to live. The facilities are mostly apartment-style living, mostly operated by nonprofit providers with support services on site.
“I feel dignified because I put the keys in my own door,” said Shams DaBaron, an advocate for those experiencing homelessness. DaBaron, who has been chronically homeless since his youth, recently moved into one of these apartments. “I don’t have security or bed checks…anything like that. This is my place.”
These units provide the unhoused a greater sense of safety, privacy and autonomy, which advocates say is crucial to getting people back on their feet.
“People want their own place, their own house,” Thomas said. “They don’t want to be cooped up in a dorm. [The subway plan] is just taking individuals that have mental and addiction problems and instead trying to force them back into the shelter.”
While the time it takes for individuals to get a referral for supportive housing varies, this current average length of stay in shelter is around 590 days, according to the “Mayor’s Management Report” from last year.
For Thomas, it took him about four years after entering the system to get an apartment of his own. DaBaron, who entered the system at 10 years old, received a few vouchers for housing throughout his life, but was only recently able to get a more stable apartment.
This years-long wait is in large part to the time it takes to process applications by the Department of Homeless Services. Under Adams’ preliminary budget proposal for the next year, advocates are concerned that the wait could become even longer due to a stiff cut in the department’s funds.
The current proposal cuts nearly $615 million from DHS’s funds through 2023 — approximately one-fifth of the agency’s operating budget. Approximately $500 million of those cuts to the department are due to a loss of COVID-19 related federal funding, budget documents show.
A portion of these cuts come from reducing the size of DHS staff by eliminating vacant positions, potentially delaying the timeline for receiving supportive housing even further.
“Moving people as quickly as possible out of shelter is going to yield much more savings than cutting a few staff from the unit that moves those people out,” said Ted Houghton, president of Gateway Housing, a nonprofit that advises affordable housing developers. “I hope somebody is looking very closely at what staffing is being cut to make sure that it’s not having a negative impact on the function of the agency.”
There is already a backlog of these applications within DHS. Nonprofit providers of supportive housing are reporting about a 10 percent vacancy rate due to lack of referrals, according to a survey conducted last fall by the Supportive Housing Network of New York. This equates to about 2,500 apartments without tenants from a pool of about 8,000 applicants in the shelter system awaiting a referral.
DHS could not be reached for comment after several phone calls and emails.
While the budget cuts could make it difficult to access currently empty units, the number of people in municipal shelters far exceeds the number of supportive housing available.
About 1,417 homeless single adults were placed in supportive housing throughout the year in 2020, while the number of single adults in DHS shelters at any given time neared 44,000, according to a report from CFTH.
The “Subway Safety Plan” acknowledges this imbalance, but provides little detail as to how the city plans to address it as they remove people from the subway.
On the campaign trail, Adams pledged ambitious measures for solving homelessness in the city that was viewed as a move away from this pattern. These included promises to invest $4 billion towards building affordable residences and using shuttered hotels to convert into 25,000 units of supportive housing instead of building new facilities.
Standing outside The Phoenix Hotel in Brooklyn last September, which was shuttered in 2015, Adams said he would take advantage of the economic downturn brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic to achieve this goal, which forced hundreds of hotels across the city to close.
“Use these hotels not to be an eyesore, but a place where people can lay their eyes on good, affordable, quality housing,” Adams said in the Sept. 20 press conference.
Some advocates view the mayor’s first budget proposal as an abandoning of the platform he ran on, opting to prioritize addressing symptoms of the burgeoning housing crisis.
“We are extremely disappointed that Mayor Eric Adams did not even mention housing in his remarks nor prioritize it in his budget plans,” Rachel Fee, executive director for the New York Housing Conference, said in a statement. “He sent a loud and clear signal to his struggling constituents: Despite what I said on the campaign trail, don’t expect bold action on housing.”
The state has unlocked funding to finance projects like the one Adams proposed, under the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act signed into law last year. The bill tapped $100 million for the acquisition of buildings like those placed at the center of Adams’ campaign proposal.
As of December, not one hotel has undergone the transition into supportive housing.
Converting hotels into affordable housing has long been considered an option for developers, however, efforts have been largely blocked by regulatory and zoning difficulties.
Most hotels are zoned in groups that do not allow permanent residences. Any changes to these rules would require a lengthy public review process, involving a series of discussions within at a community and borough level followed by review by the city council and mayor.
“You can turn a hotel into a shelter overnight, but if you want to turn that into housing, you have to meet a different set of codes and regulations,” Houghton said. “So that has proved to be an insurmountable barrier for most conversion projects that have been proposed so far.”
Without the infrastructure to support those removed from the subway system under Adams’ initiative, advocates are worried this could mean a continuation of past “shelter-first” approaches that failed to meet the needs of the unhoused.
“Supportive housing gets people off the streets, people out of the trains, people out of the shelters that could use the extra services,” DaBaron said. “Let’s start there.”