Adams’ early commitments to open new “low-barrier” shelters comes into sharper focus as he closes out his first year in office, with yet another plan to remove homeless New Yorkers from trains and public spaces. New York City has about 600 new specialized shelters for street homeless New Yorkers, but data shows relatively few people are moving from the subways to the largely congregate sites.
Douglas Springs sat quietly on the floor near the entrance to the A/C/E platform at Port Authority Tuesday morning. Springs, who does not have a home and avoids city shelters, said the spot was warm and relatively calm, though police officers frequently tell him to move along.
“When they come, I just go somewhere else, mostly hospitals,” he said. He doesn’t have a preference: “They’re all cool as long as they have a TV.”
Outreach workers often stop by to see how he is doing too, he said. They offer to take him to a shelter, but he will only go to a place with a private room and a lock on the door, he said: “I don’t want to return to the room and there’s not a damn thing left in it.”
Those kinds of accommodations are hard to come by, even as city officials say they recognize the need. From February to April, Mayor Eric Adams repeatedly touted “unprecedented investments” in Safe Haven and stabilization beds—low-barrier facilities with no curfew designed to entice people like Springs. Such sites were positioned as a key part of the mayor’s “Subway Safety Plan” launched at the start of the year, which sent teams of police and outreach workers into the subways to convince unhoused people to enter shelter.
But over the first four months of Adams’s plan to drive homeless New Yorkers off the trains, just 0.3 percent of 83,591 underground “engagements” by police and outreach teams led to a person checking into one of those specialized sites for street homeless New Yorkers, records show.
Overall, those tens of thousands of engagements—brief encounters, conversations or offers of assistance—led to a person leaving the subway system and checking into a shelter of any kind on 1,748 occasions, around 2 percent of the time, according to statistics provided to City Limits in response to a Freedom of Information Law request. Between Feb. 21 and June 12, over 82 percent of those check-ins were at the traditional congregate shelter system run by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), which requires people to first visit an intake center before they are assigned to another site, with shared rooms and rigid rules that many street homeless New Yorkers say they have tried and left. Only 310 check-ins were for Safe Haven and stabilization sites.
Meanwhile, just over half of the people who made their way from the subways to those “low-barrier” shelters stayed for more than a week, according to related records reported by the Daily News Wednesday. Safe Haven and stabilization beds are typically located in hotels or stand-alone locations, with Safe Havens requiring on-site social services as well as advance community notice. Both ideally provide a pathway to permanent housing, but only a handful offer private or semi-private rooms.
In contrast, over just the first month of the subway initiative, police made 719 arrests, issued 6,828 summonses and ejected nearly 2,000 riders, according to data released by the city in March. From January to October of this year, police made 7,228 arrests and issued 97,860 summonses in the subways; both numbers are up about 50 percent compared to last year, when ridership was lower, according to NYPD data shared with the MTA.
Those results have faced criticism from advocates for the rights of homeless New Yorkers who said they show Adams is prioritizing enforcement—forcing people off the trains—without the necessary social supports in place.
“The administration’s policies are about reducing the visibility of homeless people,” said Coalition for the Homeless Policy Director Jacquelyn Simone. “It’s not about long-term services and connections.”
Part of the problem, Simone said, is that Adams has not lived up to his lofty rhetoric around investments in new Safe Haven and stabilization beds.
In February, Adams announced the plan to move homeless New Yorkers out of the subway system alongside an accompanying commitment to offer people space in newly created low-barrier sites. A month later, he attended the ribbon-cutting for a new Safe Haven across from Lincoln Hospital. In April, he announced a $170 million pledge to step up outreach and open 1,400 low-barrier beds by the end of 2023.
Data shared by the Coalition shows that most of the beds that have opened this year or are scheduled to open next year were already planned and contracted under Mayor Bill de Blasio.
That includes all 357 Safe Haven beds that have come online this year, including just over half in two facilities that opened on Jan. 1, Adams’ first day in office. There are now 1,640 total Safe Haven beds, up from 1,283 beds at the end of last year, the Coalition said.
Meanwhile, the number of people staying in Safe Haven beds has remained about the same since early May, hovering around 1,500, according to daily census data published by DHS and tracked by City Limits.
Three additional planned Safe Haven sites, containing 197 beds, were each announced during the de Blasio administration, the Coalition added. Two are expected to open by late 2023, while the third site does not have a clear opening date.
The Adams administration managed to open 342 new stabilization beds that were not planned under de Blasio. But the city has since reduced capacity at one site and closed another 94-bed facility in August, according to the Coalition’s data, based on regular communication with DHS. There were 1,419 stabilization beds open as of Nov. 29, up from 1,202 on Jan. 1.
By late 2023, the city plans to open another 307 stabilization beds, the Coalition said.
Shams Da Baron, an activist who has experienced homelessness and works closely with the Adams administration, said he talks with New Yorkers staying in public spaces or the trains most nights to find out what they need and encourage them to accept a shelter placement.
Most say they want private rooms, he said. Often they are willing to head to a Safe Haven or stabilization site only to find there are not suitable spaces available—the same problem plaguing the system when Adams took office.
“The reality is we have not produced enough beds,” Da Baron said. “And now that it’s colder everyone has to get inside, especially if they’re getting pushed off the subways.”
His remarks echo earlier calls from advocates who’ve pressed the city to prioritize opening new beds in single rooms, since many street homeless residents avoid group shelter settings out of concern about safety and privacy. “People will be more likely to go into a Safe Haven if they feel like they know there’s going to be at most one or two people per room instead of two dozen people,” Karim Walker, an outreach specialist at Human.nyc, told City Limits in May.
One year in
The Department of Social Services (DSS) contends that Adams’ subway enforcement plan has proven successful at connecting unsheltered New Yorkers to beds and services. The agency highlighted the roughly 700 low-barrier beds that have opened under Adams and called those facilities “only the beginning.”
“We will continue to build on these efforts and provide a hand up to even more of our unsheltered neighbors in the future,” the agency added.
In a Daily News op-ed Sunday, DSS Commissioner Gary Jenkins said the number of people who checked into a shelter as a result of subway outreach since Adams’ February announcement has reached 3,000, with nearly 1,000 people still there.
“The mayor’s plan breaks down the silos and brings people together to ensure a seamless transition from the street and subways, to transitional housing, support services, and permanent housing,” Jenkins wrote.
DSS did not provide a response to specific questions about how many people who came in off the transit system secured permanent housing. City officials noted, however, that Adams chose to continue funding and following through with many of the Safe Haven and stabilization plans already in the works under his predecessor when he could have chosen to cut them, as he did with a handful of other planned facilities.
That is an important consideration because new site-specific projects can take up to 10 years to build and open, said Homeless Services United Catherine Trapani, whose organization represents providers.
Facing that reality, the key is rapidly moving people out of shelters and into permanent homes to free up existing space, Trapani said.
“There are two ways to make a Safe Haven: build a new one or empty the one you have,” she said. “We need to both develop and more expeditiously move people into housing.”
Amid the subway effort, nearly 2,600 supportive housing units sat vacant in October, the New York Times reported. Those apartments are designed for people experiencing mental illness who have experienced homelessness and are located in buildings with on-site case management and treatment options.
DSS has disputed that number and says many of the vacancies are the result of typical move-outs or are located in brand new apartments. But as City Limits has reported, bureaucratic delays and providers’ power to reject applicants with the highest needs have left apartments empty at a time of crisis.
Adams’ early commitments come into sharper focus as he closes out his first year in office, with yet another plan to remove homeless New Yorkers from the trains and public spaces—this time by stepping up involuntary transportation to city hospitals for people in acute mental health crises.
A report by Gotham Gazette Tuesday found that police have already removed 1,300 people from the trains and turned them over to emergency responders for transport to a hospital. Where they go after being discharged remains an open question, and a problem that Adams said his mental health intervention initiative aims to address.
He has urged the state to craft legislation that fosters more comprehensive treatment plans and collaboration among hospitals, providers and outpatient teams. “We can’t just stabilize people for a few days and send them back out into the city,” he said earlier this month. “We must build a continuum of care that helps patients transition into step down programs and eventually into supportive housing.”
Already, however, the order to increase involuntary hospital trips faces a legal challenge.
On the ground, underground
The sheer number of engagements during the first four months of the subway plan highlight the time-intensive work of outreach teams, who keep tabs on the unsheltered subway riders and build relationships during repeat visits over many months. That trust, born of promises kept and services offered, can lead to successful placement down the road.
A trove of emails obtained through a records request by the Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center and shared with City Limits in April detail the repeat visits and relationship-building—often undermined by elected officials, community boards or business groups eager to clear people out via police-led sweeps—and at times by outreach workers who say their efforts have been unsuccessful.
The emails also hint at their frustration.
When one man declined placement, “he remarked that if the city can spend all of this time and money on cleaning up my street location then they can find the money to put me in an apartment,” an outreach team wrote in an email to DHS on June 7, 2021. “We will continue to encourage client to accept placement until we are able to secure permanent housing for him.”
Six outreach workers who have spoken with City Limits over the past year say one key to success is offering a venue that the person on the street or subway actually feels comfortable moving into at the moment when they are willing.
One outreach team leader, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said Tuesday that they have been able to make referrals to Safe Haven and stabilization beds—a problem when capacity was lower earlier in the year. But they said they have not been able to offer placement in a single room or at a site with accommodations for people with disabilities or medical needs.
Another outreach leader, Muzzy Rosenblatt, the founder and CEO of the organization Bowery Residents Committee (BRC), viewed the data provided by DSS in response to the records request. He praised Adams’ decision to continue investing in Safe Haven and stabilization programs, which BRC pioneered, and said more such sites are needed.
“As fast as this capacity can be brought on line it is being filled,” Rosenblatt said. “These models were created in response to what unsheltered clients were telling us they wanted and needed, and they are specifically designed to serve the needs of those who have consistently refused or not succeeded in shelters.”
DHS said 95 percent of its specialized shelter beds are filled each night.
That usage rate is seen at a Safe Haven on Morris Avenue in The Bronx run by Care For the Homeless (CFH). Adams attended a ribbon-cutting at the facility in March. “This facility is an indicator of what’s possible. It’s a safe space with wraparound services,” Adams said at the time. “You can’t get this on the A train overnight. You can’t get this sleeping in Times Square. You can’t get this sleeping in a cardboard box.”
A few weeks later, the 80-bed site was full, said the organization’s CEO, George Nashak.
“We have remained at or near capacity ever since,” he said, adding that 13 people have secured permanent housing. “CFH chose this location because of our belief that there was a high level of need for this program and the outcomes we’ve achieved thus far support this belief.”
In addition to the Safe Haven and stabilization sites, the city has tried a few other small-scale models to appeal to unsheltered residents. In April, it opened its first “Welcome Center,” a version of a stabilization site that provides temporary accommodations before residents are referred elsewhere.
“I’m not outside, thank God,” a resident at the Center named Marco told City Limits in April. Another man named David Harris said he had come in from the subways and hoped to remain there until he secured a permanent home. But a few weeks later, Harris had been transferred out.
The first of up to 80 Welcome Center residents have entered a pilot program that gives them a lease to a supportive apartment in city-owned buildings run by the organization Volunteers of America-Greater New York (VOA-GNY).
“The obvious goal that we all have is to take these unsheltered individuals off the streets and into housing,” VOA-GNY President and CEO Myung Lee told City Limits.
Advocates and people experiencing homelessness have urged the city to bring that kind of model to scale and move thousands of people off the streets into empty apartments—a concept known as Housing First.
Programs that offer only temporary accommodations in shared spaces fail to get at the root cause of homelessness: not having a home. But Adams said the direct-to-housing program first needs evaluation, despite a body of research showing the Housing First model works to keep people housed.
“The worst thing we can do is start with 10,000 and figure we have to shift and pivot and shift without doing the proper analysis,” Adams told reporters. “We’re going to get it right and make sure that we can expand it.”
In the meantime, a number of people without homes continue to seek warmth and a sense of security inside the subways.
On Tuesday morning, four men sat slumped on seats in an A train car as it pulled into the Inwood-207th Street station, the last stop on the longest line in the city. Across the platform, two people, hoods over their faces, also remained in place long after a cleaning crew swept the floors and the train departed the station.
“There are more people now that it’s cold,” said one of the MTA workers cleaning the station.
As the worker spoke, another man walked down the platform slapping himself in the face, attracting the attention of two nearby police officers. They began to approach him, but he quickly regained his composure and stepped into a subway car before it headed down the tracks south to Brooklyn.
The worker said she supports Adams’ efforts to clear people from the trains and is concerned about unpredictable people in acute mental health crises. But she wonders where they will go.
“I hope something comes out of it because they’re human too,” she said.