The variety of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness has reached ranges not seen since the Great Depression. Whereas a sturdy shelter system is a vital a part of the emergency response to any homelessness disaster, New York Metropolis’s shelter system is complex and troubled. It largely homes single adults in frequent congregate environments, with a number of cots in a room and shared residing areas. In consequence, 1000’s sleep on the road, in subways, and in public areas as a result of these environments really feel safer than shelters. Whereas this will really feel like a nuisance to New Yorkers who’re housed, we have now left our neighbors with few viable alternate options.
The overwhelming majority of individuals sleeping outdoors accomplish that because of significant trauma that has occurred of their lives or that they personally skilled or witnessed inside New York Metropolis’s congregate shelters: from being assaulted, witnessing gang violence, being threatened, and being robbed, to being pressured to combat or promote medication on behalf of others in trade for security.
In our 20 years of cumulative expertise working alongside New Yorkers experiencing homelessness as advocates with Metropolis Aid and New York Authorized Help Group (NYLAG),we have now seen firsthand that, if somebody refuses to dwell in a congregate shelter, it’s nearly at all times as a result of they’ve skilled trauma and are attempting to make the most secure alternative for themselves. Residing in extremely surveilled shut quarters with dozens of strangers who might or might not pose a relentless threat of sudden hazard hardly ever feels secure.
Take Sam*, as an illustration, who we met on a chilly winter morning on the pop-up homeless useful resource heart run by Metropolis Aid the place NYLAG offers authorized companies. In a earlier life, he had been an electrician, however was evicted from his residence when his accomplice handed away and was now sleeping in Penn Station. Within the metropolis’s public shelter system, Sam was assigned to a room with greater than 50 different males, a few of whom bodily threatened him quite a few occasions. Already residing with nervousness and post-traumatic stress dysfunction previous to coming into the shelter system, sleeping in a room filled with strangers was not simply distasteful to him, it was not possible. As compared, sleeping in Penn Station felt safer.
In our metropolis’s commonplace system of homeless companies, New Yorkers like Sam are sometimes stigmatized for prioritizing their very own security, labeled as “service resistant,” and largely dismissed or demonized. However by means of our work, we all know that folks like Sam are sometimes keen and in a position to come inside if they’re provided a placement in what known as a “safe-haven” shelter — which has fewer restrictions and rules — with single and double rooms.
As a substitute of beginning with the idea that unhoused New Yorkers ought to simply settle for no matter they’ll get, we have to actually perceive the the explanation why they’re struggling to start with. In our work, we assist folks discover shelter with an affirming method, being intentional that their voices and needs are heard. Relatively than making choices for them, we begin a dialog with them, and we pay attention. We ask them what kind of placements would promote a way of security and stability for them, after which we work to remain related whereas we seek for the closest choice obtainable to their specs. To no shock, this method vastly will increase the chances of our shoppers remaining in shelter.
Sam, like most of our shoppers, wanted a non-congregate shelter placement with a purpose to even contemplate leaving the felt security of public areas. We helped Sam acquire a single room in a shelter the place his psychological well being signs weren’t triggered or exacerbated. He shortly turned eligible for a rental subsidy and for help finding an residence. A number of months later, he was in a position to transfer into his personal residence, the place he has lived fortunately for the previous six months.
To actually reduce the disaster of avenue homelessness, town should cease advancing plans to convey folks sleeping outdoors in by drive, which solely places a Band-Assist over the difficulty by making them much less seen. It should begin addressing the explanation why they can not come inside voluntarily. We have to put money into options that work, and for many of our shoppers, meaning small-room, non-congregate shelter with care coordination and entry to rental subsidies. Now we have seen it change lives.
*To guard the person’s id, a pseudonym was used.
Berkman is an lawyer and the founding father of the Shelter Advocacy Initiative on the New York Legal Assistance Group, the place she represents single adults and households experiencing homelessness. Haken is the CEO of City Relief and has labored within the streets of New York Metropolis and New Jersey for over a decade serving to folks experiencing meals and housing insecurity entry sources.