A new initiative in New York City, announced last week by Mayor Eric Adams, will funnel $8 million in corporate donations to a homeless services nonprofit organization so it can hire 100 more outreach workers, who will attempt to connect people living on the streets with beds and services.
It’s at least the fifth homeless outreach initiative the mayor has launched since entering office only eight months ago. In February, he deployed outreach teams made up of city workers and cops to move homeless New Yorkers out of the subways. A month later, he launched a massive, ongoing campaign to send homeless outreach workers to engage people living in encampments before sanitation crews and the police forcibly clear them. In April, Adams announced that he was dedicating an additional $12 million of the city budget to further expand homeless outreach, particularly at the end of subway lines. And earlier this month, he unveiled an initiative to deploy volunteers to conduct even more homeless outreach.
Previous rounds of outreach have been slow to achieve their goal: moving people from the streets to homeless shelters or other temporary accommodations. City shelters have a reputation for chaos, dangerousness, and strict rules, leading many unhoused people to refuse the services offered by outreach workers.
In the initial weeks of the encampment clearing campaign, only five people accepted services, despite police and sanitation workers sweeping nearly 250 sites; since then, the city has taken to repeatedly clearing some encampments where residents refuse accommodations. The Adams administration has touted the subway initiative as having funneled about 2,000 people into shelter since February, but the subway outreach teams make contact with more people than that every few days. It’s unclear how long people who accept outreach services stay in shelters.
The latest outreach effort, dubbed the Homeless Assistance Fund, is the first to be paid for by private corporations. In conjunction with the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit membership organization that serves as a broker between business and local government, 61 companies donated the $8 million to homeless services nonprofit Breaking Ground. Most have direct financial stakes in the New York City real estate market.
Some prominent advocacy organizations expressed support for the initiative. “More is better in terms of providing outreach, advocacy, materials, support, information, and referral linkage,” Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, told New York Focus.
Others charged that it will function less to help homeless people than to sweep them out of high-value economic zones. “Corporate-funded outreach teams will most likely be focused on getting homeless people out of sight and off corporate property, far more than getting them housed,” said Kathleen Cash, homeless and benefits advocate for the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.
Adams, who counts the real estate industry among his most reliable campaign donors, has repeatedly asserted that revitalizing Covid-battered office districts is among his administration’s top priorities. According to the mayor’s office, the Homeless Assistance Fund outreach will focus on “areas around major transit hubs and dense office districts” and serve areas on private property “not covered by city contracts, such as ATM vestibules, retail spaces, and plazas.”
Meanwhile, available beds in the city — to which outreach workers are supposed to connect unhoused people — are dwindling. The homeless shelter population has surged in recent weeks, forcing families to sleep on floors and prompting the city to lease hotel rooms to cover the overflow. Adams has announced some new shelter projects, but they are unlikely to quickly meet demand.
And more permanent accommodations, like “supportive housing,” have long seen many times more demand than supply. Breaking Ground has pointed to its stock of 4,000 supportive housing units to boost its outreach, but only 4.5 percent of those units are vacant, and “the turnover is low,” Breaking Ground’s president said last week. Citywide, there are about five eligible applications for every available supportive housing placement.
The dynamic has left some wondering: What’s the end game?