A Model for Resolving Street Homelessness

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Robert Hess, Chairman and CEO of Housing Solutions USA, Advises Brazilian Delegation on Workable Solutions

Top government officials from Rio de Janeiro met last week with Robert Hess, former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and currently CEO of Housing Solutions USA, which serves the city’s homeless population with high-quality housing, to discuss solutions to street homelessness.

    Organized by the New York Open Center and held at the Harlem offices of Pathways to Housing, the meeting provided a valuable exchange of ideas between Hess and Adilson Pires, Deputy Mayor of Rio de Janeiro and Secretary of Social Development, and his colleagues.

    Hess detailed how he was able to reduce street homelessness by 47 percent during his four-year tenure as DHS Commissioner, which began in 2006.

    “When I came into office there were 72 homeless encampments located throughout the five boroughs with five to 15 people in each,” reported Hess. Teams had been reaching out to them and keeping records, but no one was focused on helping to move them off the streets. We needed to change the mind-set. Mayor Bloomberg made it clear I had his full support however I chose to approach the problem.”

    The first step was to have pictures of the encampments taken and blown up into posters. Hess then called a meeting of the outreach teams and all 120 workers and said, “This is our city. What are we going to do to change it? How long will it take?” They spent the morning discussing what was going well and what was not, and what resources were needed.

    In the afternoon, Hess explained to the workers and their supervisors and managers that what they were doing was never going to work. He advised that new strategies needed to be developed. He called for creative and aggressive ways to help remove the most vulnerable from the streets to be generated over the next six months. He appointed an Assistant Commissioner for Street Homeless Solutions to oversee the effort.

    In another unprecedented move for city government, he established an interagency council to eliminate the existing encampments while other plans were being formulated. Thirteen city agencies, including the Police Department, Department of Parks & Recreation and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, collaborated on the effort. The encampments were photographed every week to ensure that progress was being made.

    Lastly, armed with recent research by homeless expert Dennis P. Culhane of the University of Pennsylvania, which cited the cost of someone with mental illness living on the streets of New York City as $36,000 per year, he spearheaded the creation of new housing that moved people off the streets.

    “No one lives on the streets because they want to,” said Hess. “It is because they believe living on the streets is the best option for tonight.”

    Hess’s teams interviewed the population, asking them about housing. Most felt that the shelters were too big. They needed a place that was relatively small where they could have their privacy and come in high or drunk.

    In response, DHS created 500 safe havens throughout the city with no more than 50 beds in each. There were four rules:    

1.    Outreach workers had to focus on the most vulnerable first
2.    No weapons were allowed
3.    No drugs or alcohol
4.    No fighting

    According to Hess, many people predicted the program wouldn’t work. It did. No bed was vacant for more than two weeks. The average client had lived on the street for eight years or more. There were showers, medical care and good, hot food as well as optional social services. Most stayed, got healthy and moved to the next housing option.

    Hess underscored that the outreach teams had to have patience and remember that “no” doesn’t mean “no,” just “not right now” when working with this population. The ideal time might be 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning. You have to be flexible and not take no for an answer.

    “The main reason people become homeless is generally economic,” said Hess. Hess also observed that the New York City street homeless population he served suffered from a combination of factors – drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, domestic violence and sexual abuse; the same set of challenges facing many of those living on the streets across the world.

    The Rio delegation concluded by asking Hess, “Are you ready to export the model?” The answer? Workable solutions are always exportable.

Housing Solutions USA is headquartered at 316 West 95th Street, New York, NY 10025. For more information, visit http://www.housingsolutionsusa.org or call 212-373-4600.

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Sarah Fletcher
Lou Hammond & Associates
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