Prison, Shelter or a Home?

One of our goals here at The Spotlight is to highlight the importance of relationships and issues when it comes to public safety. At first glance, you might think of initiatives like community policing, firefighters conducting community outreach prevention programs and the like. We would like to highlight another initiative taking place sometimes in the dead of night and other times right in front of us — homelessness — a major public safety, public health, and quality of life issue in many American communities

In early February, over three thousand volunteers made their way to some 20+ sites in New York City’s five boroughs to participate in the annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) Count. After receiving training, around midnight the volunteers headed into the streets of NYC where some teams would remain until 2 or 3 am. The HOPE Count is an annual event held throughout the U.S., mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which estimates the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless living among us.

According to the HUD’s latest Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, 549,928 people were homeless on any given night in America: 68% were individuals; 32% families. Veterans accounted for just over nine percent (39,471), and most homeless individuals were either white (48%) or African-American (39%).

Solutions to Homeless in America

According to HUD “ In recent years, the United States has seen the proliferation of local measures to criminalize “acts of living”; laws that prohibit sleeping, eating, sitting, or panhandling in public spaces. Some city, town, and county officials are turning to criminalization measures in an effort to broadcast a zero-tolerance approach to street homelessness and to temporarily reduce the visibility of homelessness in their communities. Although individuals experiencing homelessness should be afforded the same dignity, compassion, and support provided to others, criminalization policies further marginalize men and women who are experiencing homelessness, fuel inflammatory attitudes, and may even unduly restrict constitutionally protected liberties and violate our international human rights obligations. Moreover, there is ample evidence that alternatives to criminalization policies can adequately balance the needs of all parties.”

The Spotlight would like to highlight one solution — Housing First. On the surface this might seem like another name for Public Housing. According to the National Alliance to end Homelessness in America: Housing First is built on the belief belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues. Housing First does not require people experiencing homelessness to address the all of their problems including behavioral health problems, or to graduate through a series of services programs before they can access housing. There is a large and growing evidence base demonstrating that Housing First is an effective solution to homelessness. Consumers in a Housing First model access housing faster and are more likely to remain stably housed.

Consider the following:

— In 2015, nearly half of the $100 million the city of Los Angeles spends each year on homelessness go to the LA Police Department and not on housing solutions.

— In NYC, the annual cost to provide a single adult with supportive housing is $24,190 as compared to nearly twice this amount ($56,350) for emergency, inpatient, and other crisis services to an unhoused individual.

— Annual cost before and after permanent supportive housing placement:

— In some cases the homeless would rather remain on the streets than to seek shelter a city shelter. In 2015, New York City’s 114th Precinct made 30 arrests at the Verve Homeless Shelter, which had 825 “911” calls since it opened in November 2015, usually with one NYPD vehicle with two officers. In some cases, as many as 10 police officers, in 5 NYPD cruisers were called to the scene to restore order. Additionally, each 911 call brought one fire engine with 4-to-5 firefighters and one supervisor to the scene. On many occasions, multiple units were called to the scene to provide backup and medical assistance. Each call brought at least one ambulance with two FDNY emergency medical technicians to the scene.

In November of 2016, the National Coalition for the Homeless and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty launched their Housing Not Handcuffs campaign. As their campaign makes clear: “homelessness is reduced in communities that focus on housing, and not those that focus on criminalization.” To learn more about the Housing First model, see or Breaking Ground, NYC’s largest provider