For decades, New York City has exemplified vast transformation, ingenuity and innovation in its fight against homelessness, tackling the issue for both families and single adults. Since 1993, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has been tasked with leading this effort, and today, remains one of the largest agencies of its kind worldwide.
Originally part of the Human Resources Administration (HRA), DHS became an independent mayoral agency after then-Mayor David Dinkins sought to more extensively alter the City's homeless policies. As the 1990s progressed and DHS grew, City-run shelters were replaced with facilities operated by nonprofit organizations (under contract with the City); homeless New Yorkers received increased social services on-site, and shelters began targeting specific populations of clients to better address their varying circumstances and needs.
Yet, despite the sweeping changes being applied to the system, homelessness reform in New York City was only just beginning. With the start of the 21st Century, also came dramatic transformations that have directly improved the services available for homeless New Yorkers across the five boroughs.
Years ago, homeless families faced an overcrowded intake center, spending an average of 20 hours drudging through the intake process. Today, families at the state-of-the-art Prevention Assistance & Temporary Housing (PATH) intake center receive placements the same day they apply and benefit from an array of services offered on the premises.
In addition, the City has renewed its focus on families in shelter, specifically concentrating on the needs of children, and seeking to minimize disruptions in their lives. By creating and executing Independent Living Plans (ILPs) for all clients, DHS embraces the distinct backgrounds of each household, thereby outlining key goals that are relevant to their success and acknowledging that homelessness cannot be solved by a one-size-fits-all approach. Above all else, DHS aims to help homeless New Yorkers return to self-sufficiency in the community, while equipping them with the tools they need to maintain long-term housing stability.
Concurrent to the evolution of the families with children system, services for single adults have also grown and transformed. Prior to the landmark Callahan v. Carey case in 1981, single adults were simply turned away once shelters were filled to capacity. However, as a result of the lawsuit, the shelter system rapidly expanded, bringing beds online to accommodate every person who needed one. Whereas approximately 100 single adults could be temporarily housed before the Callahan decree, today's system provides shelter all New Yorkers experiencing verifiable homelessness who need it. Now, on any given night, we serve and support more than 17,000 single adult New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. As has been widely reported, due to a range of factors, including a shift away from the mass incarceration approaches of the past at every level of government and deinstitutionalization over prior decades, we are continuing to see consistently increasing need for shelter among adult individuals—and an increasingly complicated range of sometimes compounding service needs amongst the single adult individuals experiencing homelessness to whom we are providing shelter, including, but not limited to, substance use challenges and/or mental health challenges that are also experienced by many New Yorkers who are not experiencing homelessness. For that reason, as we site new high-quality shelter facilities to help New Yorkers get back on their feet, we are making additional investments as appropriate in mental health services/support, ensuring we and our not-for-profit social service provider partners have the ability to more effectively address each individual’s unique needs and provide more intensive, supportive services where needed. Furthermore, the modern-day system also accounts for individuals who live unsheltered throughout the City, taking into consideration that the street homeless population requires an array of customized services.
Having fallen through every available social safety net and facing unique barriers to housing, including but not limited to substance abuse or mental health concerns, individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness have been historically less inclined to accept traditional shelter placements. Thus, in 2007, DHS redesigned its outreach strategies, aggressively tailoring assistance for this population and developing a new portfolio of housing options, such as Safe Havens, which feature more flexible rules and regulations. As a result of these measures, nearly 2,900 individuals transitioned from the streets into housing over the last four years, with outreach teams continuing to engage individuals 24 hours per day, seven days a week, Citywide. Since 2014, the City has redoubled outreach efforts, dedicating unprecedented new resources to street outreach programs and provider. This Administration has tripled the number of outreach staff canvassing the streets engaging New Yorkers 24/7/365 since 2014, from fewer than 200 to nearly 600, with those dedicated staff canvassing the streets every day, building relationships over weeks and months through regular contact and concerted engagement with homeless New Yorkers focused on encouraging them to accept services and transition off the streets. This Administration has more than quadrupling the number of emergency ‘safe haven’ and ‘stabilization’ beds dedicated to serving street homeless New Yorkers citywide since 2014, with hundreds of these specialized beds opened during this Administration, bringing the total up from 600 to more than 1,800 as of January 2020; and hundreds more opened since the start of this year, including in commercial hotel locations, which are already helping hundreds of unsheltered New Yorkers get back on their feet.
Every day, New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, whether sheltered or unsheltered, are able to overcome these challenges and get back on their feet with the help of NYC DSS-DHS-HRA and its non-profit provider partners. At the same time, the Agency also employs an aggressive prevention-first approach to addressing homelessness, connecting New Yorkers to an extensive range of resources and programs through its community-based Homebase program. With storefront offices located in high-needs neighborhoods throughout New York City, Homebase has provided vital services to an average of approximately 14,300 households in each of the past five fiscal years with customized assistance plans, helping them to remain stably housed whenever feasible. In the summer of 2013, DHS released the findings of a rigorous Homebase evaluation, an independent study that overwhelmingly upheld the value and success of the program.
Offering a comprehensive portfolio of services and programs, New York City addresses the issue of homelessness head-on, always meeting its legal and moral obligations to assist those in need. All New Yorkers should be proud to live in a City that prevents homelessness to the fullest extent possible, and one that remains focused on helping families and individuals transition back to homes of their own.