• Opinion
  • June 25, 2019
  • 9 minutes
  • 0

How New York is ending homelessness

Opinion: First step — get the homeless off the streets

This opinion article was written by Brenda Rosen, President and CEO of the NGO Breaking Ground, and Jamie Rubin, CEO of Meridiam NA, an infrastructure development firm, and former Commissioner of the New York Division of Homes and Community Renewal. For more like this, see our smart cities newsfeed.


Today in New York City, about 3,500 people are sleeping on the streets, according to the latest HOPE Count, the federally mandated Homeless Outreach Population Estimate annual survey.

Living on the streets of New York is gruelling, with hot summers, freezing cold winters, and the physical, emotional, and financial cost of just trying to get by in one of the largest and most expensive cities in the world.

One might assume that the offer of a home and services to get off the streets would be accepted immediately, but the reality is that the majority of those experiencing long-term homelessness are afraid to come inside.

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Focused on survival and how they are going to make it through the next week, day, or hour, many vulnerable people on the street find it impossible to think about their long-term health and stability.

For some, they know that the promise of housing comes with requirements — such as going on medication or getting sober — and while someone is still on the streets, these barriers can be overwhelming, causing many to give up and resist offers of help.

Over the last two decades however, a revolutionary approach called Housing First coupled with the supportive housing movement has changed that.

Meeting the homeless where they are

Housing First is the philosophy that the first and primary need for a person experiencing long-term homelessness is to obtain a stable home, and that other issues can best be addressed once inside.

Asking someone to go through treatment in order to become stable and then get access to housing is a recipe for failure. With the anchor of supportive housing that has wrap-around on-site services, each person is empowered and chooses to address the challenges that were keeping them homeless in the first place.

The Housing First approach is tremendously successful and effective.

We have seen it over and over again across thousands of units of supportive housing in New York City: sobriety, improved health, and lives of dignity and security are within the reach for even those homeless individuals who have struggled for decades with debilitating illness and substance use disorders.

Going home

It has changed the lives of so many, including Daniel Broome, a resident at a Breaking Ground home in the Bronx, one of New York City’s five boroughs. Daniel Broome struggled with addiction for decades, and after years of chronic homelessness he worked with an outreach team to move directly from the streets to his Breaking Ground apartment.

Supportive housing is not only the most effective response to homelessness but also the most cost-effective

“I’ll never forget it,” Daniel Broome said in an in-person interview with Breaking Ground earlier this year. “they came to get me the day before a big snowstorm and said ‘you’re going home.’ The next day was the first time in a long time that I was inside looking out the window at the snow falling outside.”

Now, Daniel Broome has been sober for over a year. His new goal is to become a substance use counsellor so that he can help others find a better path, just like he has.

It all starts with a safe place to live, a door you can lock, and a bed to sleep in night after night.

Saving lives and saving money

Key to the success of the Housing First model are the accompanying supportive housing services that are 100% voluntary, located right in the building.

Supportive residences have services tailored to the needs of the tenants and may include case management, mental health counsellors, primary medical care, and job and educational resources. A question we often face is that providing supportive housing is of course the humane thing to do, but isn’t it wildly expensive?

In fact, compared to the alternative of leaving someone outside on the streets, supportive housing is not only the most effective response to homelessness but also the most cost-effective. When someone lives outdoors, they frequently make disproportionate use of expensive public resources like emergency rooms, psychiatric beds, jails, and emergency shelters.

A 2013 report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene concluded that supportive housing saves the public approximately $10,000 per person per year.

Bringing the homeless inside

Homelessness is a not a crisis unique to New York. Cities around the country — and around the world — are grappling with how to help the most vulnerable in their communities.

In New York, the City and State governments have both made commitments to increase supportive housing. Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have pledged to create a combined 35,000 units of supportive housing in New York over the next several years.

With these strategic investments to lift up the city’s most vulnerable — coupled with forward-thinking providers who are deploying the Housing First approach, we can make great strides in helping the homeless come inside. Everyone deserves a home, and it’s our job as policy makers and advocates to get them there. — Brenda Rosen and Jamie Rubin

Brenda Rosen is the President and CEO of Breaking Ground, New York’s largest provider of supportive housing with more than 3,700 units in operation. Breaking Ground also runs, under contract with the New York City Department of Homeless Services, 24/7 street outreach across all of Brooklyn and Queens, and a significant portion of Midtown Manhattan. More than 98% of formerly homeless tenants who enter Breaking Ground’s permanent supportive housing remain housed 12 months later, and the agency has helped more than 14,000 New Yorkers overcome or avoid homelessness since 1990. Learn more at www.breakingground.org

Jamie Rubin is CEO of Meridiam NA, an infrastructure development firm based in New York and Toronto. He served as Commissioner of New York State Division of Homes and Community Renewal in 2015 and 2016.

(Photo credit: Unsplash)

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