Last month I shared my perspective on how the lack of affordable housing is impacting the homeless men and women BRC serves, and our innovative new solution to that challenge, now in construction in the Bronx (if you missed it, you can find it here).
This month, I’d like to focus on the needs of the so-called “service resistant” homeless people sleeping on the streets, subways, and elsewhere; why they are there, and what BRC is doing to help them.
Soon the Mayor will present his plan to restructure homeless services, and announce the result of the annual homeless street census, so a deeper dive on the issue and solutions is timely. To begin, it’s important to distinguish between there being more people, and seeing more people. In years past we saw fewer unsheltered people because many slept out of sight, in hospitals, jails, or vacant lots. However, from 2013 to 2015, the daily jail population declined by over 1,500; the daily census in State psychiatric centers decreased by over 1,000; and buildings are now rising on hundreds of vacant lots where homeless people once slept. Concurrently, after a series of scandals, the City banned the use of unregulated residences, known as “three quarter houses,” where hundreds of homeless parolees often lived while seeking treatment. While not everyone reflected in these trends is homeless, we know that the unsheltered homeless – especially those living with mental illness and/or addiction – are more likely to be incarcerated, hospitalized or in treatment.
As a result of these trends, we are seeing more people choosing to live on the streets and subways. When they refuse the options of shelter or detox, they are often labelled “service resistant.” Perhaps it’s understandable to blame those who reject help. We can say, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” But they can, and many choose to live on our streets and subways.
At BRC, we want to understand – and influence – the choices our clients and potential clients make.
We see them as our customers, and we take time to listen.
they aren’t ready for sobriety, don’t like rules (such as curfews) that apply in shelters; and they don’t want to sleep in chairs (drop-in centers don’t have beds). Time and again they tell us: give me a bed to sleep in, don’t force me to get sober, and don’t impose a lot of structure on me, and I’ll come in. So we did, and they did; that was 10 years ago.
In 2006, with a grant from the Betty and Norman F. Levy Foundation, and in partnership with the Mayor’s Fund for NYC, BRC developed an innovative response to the needs and desires of the “service resistant” homeless. We took a room in what was our drop-in center and built a dorm. We replaced chairs with beds. We eliminated curfews and said people could come and go as they pleased. We did not require sobriety, though we did say we would not allow any alcohol, drugs or fighting in the building. We had only one expectation: that these clients not only transition off the streets and subways, but that they continue to transition into housing. We called the program Safe Haven, and in 18 months, 67 “service resistant” homeless individuals, with an average of over 8 years living unsheltered, came in for services. And of that initial pilot group, 17 progressed on to housing, many getting sober along the way.
This achievement led the City to adopt and replicate the model. Today, over 600 Safe Haven beds are in service citywide, along with hundreds of Stabilization Beds, a variant for clients seeking and needing less supervision and structure. BRC operates nearly 200 Safe Haven beds and another 100 Stabilization Beds (and we no longer have a drop-in center). In the ten years since we launched these innovative models, 1,372 homeless men and women have moved through our Safe Haven and Stabilization beds and into their own homes. (You can learn more about BRC’s creation of the Safe Haven on page 31 of this report from Bloomberg Philanthropies.)
With this success, demand for these beds has exceeded the supply. BRC, with the largest homeless outreach program in NYC, has scores of unsheltered homeless clients waiting to come in to a Safe Haven or Stabilization bed. They are not “service resistant.” They know exactly the service they want and need. So we are working with our partners in government, the faith community and other enlightened nonprofits, to identify new locations for Safe Haven and Stabilization capacity, while we concurrently work to transition our existing clients to housing, freeing up the capacity we have.
The past few months have seen well needed attention to the challenge of serving the unsheltered homeless. BRC has received funding to increase our homeless outreach staff, and in coming months I hope to share with you news of our efforts to add Safe Haven and Stabilization beds as well. Until then, keep an open mind when you see a homeless person on the street or subway, recognizing that most want help, but that the help they seek may not always be available. If you speak with them, be sure to mention BRC and give them the number to our helpline (212.533.5151); or call us yourself.
This is another example of how BRC thinks about the issues and creates innovative solutions. I welcome your feedback on this and other subjects. Thank you for your interest and support of BRC, and the people we serve.