Monday, March 13, 2023
Rain. High 44 degrees.
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By Carol Tannenhauser
With discussion continuing for another month about the safe haven for homeless people opening on W. 83rd Street in April (wisely extended by Community Board 7 at the March board meeting), there is time to clear up some of the confusion about the facility, resulting, in part, from the way it has been portrayed in the press:
“The city unveiled a plan this week to house 108 vagrants — without background checks — in a new homeless shelter across from a school on the Upper West Side,” the New York Post announced last week.
Forgetting (for now) the antiquated reference to “vagrants,” a safe haven is not the same thing as a homeless shelter, as defined by the city. Although both are transitional facilities intended to shelter homeless people temporarily while permanent housing is secured for them, the similarity ends there. The differences begin with the segments of the homeless population each type of facility serves.
New York City homeless shelters, administered by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), are required by law to provide shelter to anyone who “lacks another housing alternative.” This so-called “right to shelter” was established in New York City in 1979 following a landmark court case “laying the groundwork for the city’s billion-dollar shelter system,” according to City & State.
Safe havens are also administered by DHS, but only accept homeless people who are living “outside,” i.e. in the streets, parks, and subways, known as the “unsheltered homeless.” These are people who refuse the city’s offer of shelter, and cannot be forced to accept it or services. Many people lose their housing — they’re kicked out or can’t pay their rent — and turn immediately to the shelter system. Others would rather brave the streets than enter it.
“In many cases, mental illness and substance abuse play a role, but it also has to do with holding onto their independence,” said Lisa Lombardi, deputy executive director of Urban Pathways, who oversees the only other safe haven on the Upper West Side, in an earlier interview. “These are people who have fallen through every available social safety net and for one reason or another may be distrustful of institutional settings,” added a spokesperson for DHS. “They may have had a bad experience when they turned to government for help in the past. Our work is a slow, persistent process of rebuilding that trust.”
Homeless shelters can be huge, like the notorious, 1,000-bed Bellevue Men’s Shelter on East 30th Street, which also serves as the intake center for single, homeless men. The intake process is highly bureaucratic, requiring documentation, such as identification and proof of last address, not readily accessed by many homeless people. Once accepted, clients are assigned to facilities reputed to be dangerous and drug-ridden, with dormitories lined with cots. They are expected to be out of the shelter by day, seeking employment or housing, and back every night for a 10 p.m. curfew, when they must “sign for their beds” or lose them.
The only way into a safe haven, on the other hand, is with an outreach worker who escorts clients through the front door. Funded by the city, outreach workers know well the people they bring in; typically, they’ve been working with them for a while, trying to convince them to come inside. Once they do, they get a bed in a room with one, two or three other people of the same gender, with access to the facility 24 hours a day. The population is usually smaller than in a homeless shelter. Residents receive three meals a day, if they want them, and have access to a shower and all the activities, services, and staff that are provided — for example, case managers, housing specialists, psychiatrists, and substance-abuse counselors. There’s no curfew and they only sign in for their beds once every 72 hours to maintain residency.
New York City pays rent to the owner of the building where the safe haven will be. DHS chose the site and set the budget, which determines the number of units, or “beds,” in this case, 108. As for why the site was chosen, the reality is, CB7 has been requesting a safe haven in our district for three years in their end-of-year, district-needs statements. Here is, in part, what they said in 2022:
“Safe Haven Funding is needed to build an additional Safe Haven shelter in Community District 7 to most effectively address the rising number of those living on the street in the district. The Safe Haven model includes smaller facilities (50-60 beds) and supportive services, and is considered to be the most effective means by which to persuade those living on the street to accept an offer of shelter.” (FY22 Overall Capital Budget Priority #4.)
Another often confused and misused term on the city’s housing continuum is “supportive housing.” Supportive housing is permanent, affordable housing for formerly homeless people and others “who have significant barriers to maintaining housing on their own, such as serious mental illness, substance abuse, or poor physical health as a result of years spent living unsheltered,” explains the website of Breaking Ground, the nonprofit that will run the new safe haven for the city. The 33-year-old organization also owns and manages supportive housing, in some cases occupied by former residents of the five other safe havens it currently runs throughout the five boroughs, including two in Manhattan. “The fundamental characteristic of [supportive housing],” the website continues, “is that it includes access to on-site, supportive services that sustain tenants on a path of long-term stability, including case management, social activities, and educational offerings that enhance self-sufficiency and quality of life.”
The main things that set tenants of supportive housing apart from those living in transitional facilities are: a lease and a key.
Addendum: You may be thinking, “wait a minute, back up a bit. CB7 may have asked for a safe haven in the neighborhood, but I didn’t. CB7 doesn’t represent me.” Ah, but they do. Yes, they are appointed — but by borough presidents whom Upper West Side voters supported overwhelmingly: Mark Levine, and before him, Gale Brewer. There’s a long history of progressive politics in New York City. And, like it or not, we are still a largely progressive neighborhood. That may be changing, but those are our roots. Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.
Take care and have a good week.
Correction: The city does not own the building as we first reported. The city rents the building from the owner.