In our 20 years of cumulative experience working alongside New Yorkers experiencing homelessness as advocates with City Relief and New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG),we have seen firsthand that, if someone refuses to live in a congregate shelter, it is almost always because they have experienced trauma and are trying to make the safest choice for themselves. Living in highly surveilled close quarters with dozens of strangers who may or may not pose a constant risk of unexpected danger rarely feels safe.
Take Sam*, for instance, who we met on a cold winter morning at the pop-up homeless resource center run by City Relief where NYLAG provides legal services. In a previous life, he had been an electrician, but was evicted from his home when his partner passed away and was now sleeping in Penn Station. In the city’s public shelter system, Sam was assigned to a room with more than 50 other men, some of whom physically threatened him numerous times. Already living with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder prior to entering the shelter system, sleeping in a room full of strangers was not just distasteful to him, it was impossible. In comparison, sleeping in Penn Station felt safer.
In our city’s standard system of homeless services, New Yorkers like Sam are often stigmatized for prioritizing their own safety, labeled as “service resistant,” and largely dismissed or demonized. But through our work, we know that people like Sam are often willing and able to come inside if they are offered a placement in what is called a “safe-haven” shelter — which has fewer restrictions and regulations — with single and double rooms.
Instead of starting with the assumption that unhoused New Yorkers should just accept whatever they can get, we need to truly understand the reasons why they are struggling to begin with. In our work, we help people find shelter with an affirming approach, being intentional that their voices and desires are heard. Rather than making decisions for them, we start a conversation with them, and we listen. We ask them what type of placements would promote a sense of safety and stability for them, and then we work to stay connected while we search for the closest option available to their specifications. To no surprise, this approach vastly increases the odds of our clients remaining in shelter.
Sam, like most of our clients, needed a non-congregate shelter placement in order to even consider leaving the felt safety of public spaces. We helped Sam obtain a single room in a shelter where his mental health symptoms were not triggered or exacerbated. He quickly became eligible for a rental subsidy and for assistance locating an apartment. A few months later, he was able to move into his own apartment, where he has lived happily for the past six months.
To truly lessen the crisis of street homelessness, the city must stop advancing plans to bring people sleeping outside in by force, which only puts a Band-Aid over the issue by making them less visible. It must start addressing the reason why they cannot come inside voluntarily. We need to invest in solutions that work, and for most of our clients, that means small-room, non-congregate shelter with care coordination and access to rental subsidies. We have seen it change lives.
*To protect the individual’s identity, a pseudonym was used.
Berkman is an attorney and the founder of the Shelter Advocacy Initiative at the New York Legal Assistance Group, where she represents single adults and families experiencing homelessness. Haken is the CEO of City Relief and has worked in the streets of New York City and New Jersey for over a decade helping people experiencing food and housing insecurity access resources.