The city’s outreach to homeless people in the subway system has successfully diverted hundreds of individuals into the housing through a program that offers an alternative to group shelters, officials say.
When the subway started closing overnight in May, the city began intensive outreach, sending more teams to end-of-line subway stations to bring homeless people to shelters. At first, few of them were willing to come indoors. But seven months later, 640 people have left the subways and now have a roof over their heads, according to city figures. A key reason is that the city has expanded the use of so-called stabilization beds—rooms in single-room occupancy buildings and hotels like the kind Sinkler has gotten—adding 1,109 so far this year.
“The use of stabilization beds, particularly in hotels, is clearly successful in terms of providing things that people really need and want,” said Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless.
She said homeless people living on the streets and subways want to come indoors if they’re offered something other than dorm-style shelters, where many have had bad experiences in the past.
Only one-third of the people who’ve left the subways have been placed in stabilization beds, while the majority have still ended up in traditional shelters. But the people placed in traditional shelters are more likely to leave and go back to the subway. City-data shows that just 10 percent of those who initially accepted referrals to shelters are still there, while 35 percent of those who agreed to stabilization beds remain there.
“People want privacy and agency and dignity and being able to have your own space where you can shut the door, or your own bathroom, or you can take a shower,” Routhier said.
Outreach teams that fan out across the subway system every night knew Shawn Sinkler, because he’d been sleeping on trains for a few years. They offered to take him to a shelter many times, but he didn’t want to go.
Then, earlier this year, they offered Sinkler, 56, his own room, and he changed his mind.
“In the shelter, you might be around 50 plus guys, people trying to steal your stuff,” he said. “You got all kinds of people with different mentalities, and you have to deal with that.”
By contrast, at the Aladdin Hotel in Hell’s Kitchen, where he is now staying, Sinkler has his own bed, air conditioner, and refrigerator.
“I really appreciate it,” he said. “The streets is a lot worse than here.”
A spokesman for the Department of Social Services, Isaac McGinn, said the city will continue assessing the need for more stabilization beds in the future.
“As the weather gets colder,” he said, “we will continue doing all that we can, leaving no stone unturned, to equip [unsheltered New Yorkers] with the range of resources that help make a real difference.”
The increase in stabilization beds is separate from the city’s efforts to move homeless adults from dorm-style shelters into hotels in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Stabilization beds have been in use for over a decade. In 2007, George Nashak, a deputy commissioner at the Department of Homeless Services, introduced them after realizing that the set-up in traditional shelters, where eight to 12 people on average share a room, with curfews and lots of rules, doesn’t work for some people living on the streets.
“They’re not in a congregate environment where they’re eating in a cafeteria or sleeping in a dormitory,” Nashak told us, referring to stabilization beds. “They have the ability to close the door and be by themselves.”
Stabilization beds are cheaper than shelters, but they provide few supportive services. Nashak said that carries some risks, such as putting someone who has an opioid addiction in a place where they won’t be regularly seen by staff members and other residents, as they would be in regular shelters.
But at the moment, some people who live on the streets said they’re waiting to be offered stabilization beds themselves, especially after seeing other people they know get them.
“Everybody we know, they’re in hotel rooms,” said Hector Escalera, 53, who’s lived on the streets since 2012.
He and his friend, Wolfgang Zernicke, 58, used to avoid outreach teams who kept coming to them with offers to take them to shelters. Both said they’ve had bad experiences and had no desire to go back to shelters.
Recently, they came up with a plan to get their own rooms: They call 311 on themselves, tell operators that there are two homeless people sleeping on the street. Then they ask, “Can you send someone?” (As of the time of the interview, they hadn’t been offered stabilization beds.)
Routhier said attitudes like theirs show that even more homeless people would come off the streets if the city made more stabilization beds available.
“They’re going to need potentially thousands more hotel rooms,” she said. “They are encountering thousands of people … and only a small portion of them are gaining access to stabilization beds.”