November 9, 2017
NEW YORK — It’s before dawn when two outreach workers find a homeless man known as Juice near a train station in Harlem. A nurse will be visiting to discuss his heart problems, they tell him.
A short time later, in Marcus Garvey Park, the sun has just begun to rise when the caseworkers approach a man zipped inside a sleeping bag. They have encountered him before; they know he’s teasing when he gives a phony name.
Gladys Rivera and Ali Olson are part of a citywide, round-the-clock army of workers for nonprofits contracted by the city.
Their aim is to get the homeless into shelter, and so they make the rounds of upper Manhattan, checking on clients, identifying newcomers to the streets and trying to connect them with services. They are often rejected, but they do not give up.
“You never know which one is going to be the one that sticks,” Olson said.
Rivera and Olson are soldiers in the city’s massive daily effort to get the homeless off the street, and into a system that has the capacity to shelter anyone who needs a place to stay.
The nation’s most populous city also has the nation’s largest homeless population, with 75,000, and like other high-rent cities, it has not been able to move the dispossessed to permanent housing nearly as fast as people are becoming homeless.
But there is one key difference: The homeless in New York are far less visible on a daily basis than in West Coast cities where the population has exploded over the past couple years, leading several local governments to declare states of emergency.
The city had fewer than 4,000 unsheltered homeless in an official count taken in January, a number that might have been deflated somewhat by winter weather.
But that amounts to only about one in 20 homeless people being unsheltered. That compares with 15 of every 20 homeless people in Los Angeles sleeping on the streets or in tents, vehicles or abandoned buildings.
In California, Oregon and Washington combined, 12 out of every 20 homeless people have no shelter at night. New York City has more people in shelters than the three West Coast states combined—and about the same number living on the street as Oakland, a city that has just five percent the population of New York.
Some West Coast cities are pushing for permanent affordable housing as a longterm fix for the growing homeless crisis, but officials also are looking for immediate answers. The idea of right-to-shelter programs mimicking New York’s has popped up in this year’s mayoral race in Seattle.
New York’s policy grew out of a series of court rulings dating to the 1970s and is rooted in state constitutional provisions adopted in the 1930s to ensure the needy would get government help.
Homeless families can get short-term shelter while their cases are investigated and longer-term shelter if they are found in need of it.
For single adults, there is even easier access to the system. They show up at intake centers and are usually given a place to stay that night. There are ample opportunities to get inside, said Cedric Harden, a 35-year-old formerly homeless man now working as a chef.
“You have to be crazy as hell to be homeless in New York City,” he said, while visiting old friends on the streets in Harlem.
While the effort is expansive, it’s also not cheap. Last year, New York spent nearly $1.7 billion in city, state and federal money to aid the homeless. And even with that commitment, the sheltering program has its critics among the homeless.