homeless tunnelThe BronxWorks homeless outreach team searches for people living in the 170th Street underpass in the Bronx. (Frank G. Runyeon)

An eerie orange glow lit the 170th Street underpass in the Bronx. There, among the old grocery bags, dirty papers, shards of lumber and shreds of clothing, a bedraggled man with wispy hair lay hidden between a steel girder and a cement barricade. 

It was just before 6 o’clock on an early fall evening and commuters’ cars washed by as Juan Rivera and his two outreach workers made their pitch to the man, asking if he needed anything. He didn’t want the city’s help, he told the workers in Spanish, at least not today.

Rivera, who leads the homeless outreach team for BronxWorks, took the brush-off in stride. “The people who are out there, they're seeing us more often,” said Rivera, citing a recent increase in funding for their outreach work that has enabled them to double their staff. “So, even if they say no now, they know that we're around.”

The city estimates that of all the street homeless people contacted in recent months, only about half of them accept city assistance, such as a shelter bed. But meanwhile, the total number of people living on the streets continues to rise – a DHS official told City & State they will soon be releasing data that shows an increase between May and August.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has come under a torrent of criticism over his handling of the homelessness crisis in New York City. In response, this April the mayor announced the launch of Home-Stat – the Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement Street Action Teams. Home-Stat is an alliance of homeless service providers and city agencies aiming to better track and offer services to the city’s growing homeless population. 

The city is placing a nearly $30 million bet on the new approach, budgeting $7 million in 2016 and $22.9 million for 2017, hoping to better understand both who is living on the streets and how to get them off the streets and into housing. 

“Generally speaking, in the past, the focus was on the numbers and a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Steven Banks, commissioner of the city’s Department of Social Services and the Human Resources Administration. “The aim of Home-Stat was and is to focus on the numbers of New Yorkers on the streets as individuals.” 

“We’re focused on names, not numbers,” Banks said.

The initiative aims to create a list of names and locations for all the homeless people living on the street so the city can better track who is out there and what they need. The new approach, the commissioner said, means a more inclusive homeless outreach program. Previous policies limited services to the “chronically homeless,” a subset of homeless individuals who have been on the street for many months. The hope is that Home-Stat could help more temporarily homeless people before their situation becomes that dire.

“It’s in no one’s interest to have people remain on the streets until they reach a rigid definition,” Banks said. “Our providers for years have been focusing on chronically homeless individuals and now they have the ability to focus on anyone who’s on the street and to provide services immediately.”

Recent estimates all show the city’s homeless population continues to climb.

The Department of Homeless Services reported that some 59,918 people slept in city shelters on Sept. 29, an increase of 4.6 percent from the same day last year. Coalition for the Homeless, which includes other specialized shelter beds in its monthly average count, showed a similar 4.7 increase between August 2015 and August 2016, when the total reached 61,464 sheltered individuals.

Outside the shelter system, Home-Stat's first two quarterly counts also showed an increase in the number of street homeless between May and August – up from 2,535 last spring – a DHS city official told City & State. The increase may be due to seasonal variations, outreach groups noted. The data from the August count is due to be released to the public later this month.

However, those numbers are slightly lower than the federally mandated Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (Hope) count, which found 2,794 street homeless individuals using a different methodology. The Hope count has been routinely criticized as inaccurate and flawed by homeless service providers.

Home-Stat has also tasked teams of canvassers – operating separately from the nonprofit outreach groups – to survey the city on foot, block by block, between Canal Street and 145th Street in Manhattan, as well as select “hot spots” throughout the city. The canvassers, who wear clearly marked official uniforms, observe and note anyone who appears to be homeless in an effort to better target outreach efforts.

But on a recent evening at 125th Street and Park Avenue in Harlem, a half dozen street homeless individuals camped near the Metro-North overpass said they had never seen the city canvassers or anyone in official uniforms who weren’t police officers. At the nearby office of Picture the Homeless, a homeless advocacy group, three senior members said they had not seen or heard of any Home-Stat canvassers, either. 

“Being that they're doing this canvassing from Canal to 145th, from the East River to the Hudson River, you would assume that we would have seen them out day and night,” said Al Williams, a leader at Picture the Homeless. “I’ve never seen any organization doing the canvassing.”

Commissioner Banks maintained that the Home-Stat canvassers were walking their routes in “very clear official garment.”

But while the canvassers may not have been visible to some of the city’s street homeless, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. 

“I can understand why people might be saying, ‘I haven't even seen them or I don't know who they are,’” said Brenda Rosen, executive director of Breaking Ground, a nonprofit providing homeless outreach for all of Queens, Brooklyn and midtown Manhattan. Home-Stat canvassers don’t necessarily engage with people on the street, since their job is solely to observe and report back to the city, she said. “If they see someone bedded down on the corner, they are going to relay the information to make sure that it gets to the appropriate outreach team." 

Rosen’s organization has received helpful information from the canvassers, she said, alerting her outreach team when they see homeless individuals on their route. And thanks to Home-Stat’s funding, Breaking Ground has been able to double its outreach staff in Manhattan and triple it in Queens and Brooklyn, so the group has the capacity to go out and offer services to those street homeless.

“We didn't have the time or the resources to spend with most of the episodically homeless and short-term homeless,” Now, Rosen said, they do.

But locating and bringing the city’s street homeless indoors can still be daunting for the nonprofits tasked with the job.

“It's difficult, but you can't look at the entire borough,” Rivera said, referring to an oversize map in his BronxWorks office. BronxWorks is the only city-contracted homeless outreach group in the borough, which makes Rivera’s 17 outreach workers responsible for an area twice the size of Manhattan. “You have to zone in on particular areas where you know things are happening. Then you branch out little by little to see what else is happening.”

At any time of day, BronxWorks has two cars on the road – one east of the Bronx River Parkway and another to the west. The cars enable them to cover more ground and interact with about 30 to 40 homeless people a day. Calls to the city’s 311 information line about homeless Bronxites feed directly to BronxWorks – and the organization prides itself on responding within the hour. 

“It’s a big job, of course,” Rivera said. “It’s tough work, but I think we have a formula that works." 

Five months in, the city feels confident in a certain degree of progress with Home-Stat. 

One early success, Banks said, is how Home-Stat now directs resources toward places service providers weren’t able to reach, such as libraries and hospital waiting rooms.

In addition, Banks said, outreach efforts “over the last five months have provided us a list of 1,200 people who we know by name and we're engaging and had success in bringing some of them in,” although he noted that “a comparable universe of people” have been contacted who have not yet accepted the city’s help. 

Ultimately, measuring the success of Home-Stat may be difficult simply because it’s so unique.

“The breadth of the approach is new. Never been tried before,” Banks said.

Homeless outreach groups often caution against simple solutions, explaining that finding housing for homeless New Yorkers only solves part of the problem.

It’s a story that Willie Baez, 48, can tell from experience. 

At the corner of Tremont and Third Avenue, Baez sat with his friends on the stoop of a long-abandoned brick building that serves as a congregating place for some of the men in the neighborhood. 

“At first I was very elated, I was so happy,” Baez said after he was placed in supportive housing last year. But then, he said, the newness of the gift wore off and a cloud of doubt settled in. 

“I have mental illness, so I am constantly depressed,” Baez explained. “I constantly worry that I'm going to lose the place or that I don't deserve it – that it’s not for me. I constantly get thoughts and visions that I'd be better off back in the streets.” 

Without enough employment, Baez said, his life lacks purpose. 

“I’m just a leaf,” he said. “Blowing in the wind.”

Juan Rivera overheard Baez’s words and walked over. The men have known each other for three or four years.

“Come see me tomorrow, OK?” Rivera said, adding that Baez should bring his homeless friend along. 

“I will. That’ll put a great feeling in my heart,” Baez said, chuckling for the first time. 

Baez showed up the next day, Rivera said, but it looks like his friend is still out there on the street.