It seems that every week we hear about the City opening another homeless shelter. It makes one wonder what goes on inside these places. Are they all the same? Do they simply put a roof over people’s heads, effectively warehousing them? Do the homeless who live in them have anything to do? Do they ever move out to housing and move on with their lives? Or do they just leave and keep coming back?
The short answer
Great questions; the short answer is that not all shelters are the same. Some, like BRC's, offer their residents a lot to help them succeed.
Last year, over 800 men and women (838 to be exact) graduated from BRC shelters and safe havens and moved into more independent housing. Of those who moved out the year before, less than 10% have returned to the shelter system.
Success, for our clients and for BRC, doesn’t come easy. Before I share some (not all!) of our secrets, a little context might be helpful.
There are nearly 300 shelters, safe havens and other facilities for the homeless in New York City, sheltering close to 60,000 a night and over 100,000 over the year, as people come and go. BRC operates 8 residences for single adults, which combined house just over 1,000 (1,019) people a night, representing about 7% of the City’s approximately 14,000 beds for single adults.
When it comes to homelessness, New York City is unique.
While homelessness exists in communities across America and beyond, only in New York is there an effective “right” to shelter. This right dates back almost four decades, to when the State and City signed a consent decree in response to a class action lawsuit, Callahan et. al. v Carey. In the late 1970s, when the suit was brought, New York City had only a handful of shelters, housing a few hundred people; when these were full, those in need had to wait (as is the practice in most every other community in America).
Callahan established that the city must provide immediate shelter to every eligible homeless person. The first shelters were often scary places; to comply with the Court’s order, the city quickly set up beds in old armories, hospitals and schools. Those who came got a place to sleep, bathe and eat; not much more. Shelters for single adults had several hundred, sometimes as many as a thousand, beds laid out in wide open cavernous spaces.
Bottom line, the City is obligated to provide a bed to every homeless person who needs one.
Except for a short period in the 1990s, the shelter system has continued to grow, 30% over the past 3 years and more than double the size it was 8 years ago (why it’s grown is another question for another piece). Some shelters are operated by nonprofits; others are run by the City and still others are run by private landlords. Some are stand-alone facilities; others are apartments in residential buildings being leased (at above market rents) for use as shelter capacity (Mayor de Blasio has made closing these cluster shelters, and restoring them as rental housing, a priority). The quality of the facility and the array of services provided varies; capacity is mandated, superior services are not.
What distinguishes BRC shelters?
As always, what distinguishes BRC is not what we do, but how we do it. We’re both caring and effective. As noted above, last year 838 men and women graduated from BRC shelters and safe havens and moved into more independent housing, and fewer than 10% of those who moved out the year before returned to the shelter system. Though we operate about 7% of the single adult shelter system’s capacity, we accounted for nearly 10% of its 8,649 housing placements, demonstrating BRC’s continued success and ability to “punch above our weight”. Similarly, while the average stay in shelters citywide last year was 355 days, every single BRC residence averaged below that.
How do we consistently exceed the norm, and enable our clients to do better than they might do elsewhere? By doing everything we can to not allow our clients to fail.
At BRC, we don’t think it makes sense to say “our way or the highway” to people who have found the streets to be comfortable and may find the structure of shelters and the idea of change to be overwhelming. We motivate our clients to do the things they need to do off-site, such as going to treatment, looking for work, applying for benefits, interviewing for housing, and even getting exercise; but we don’t force them to leave the building. While they are in our facilities, we offer a wide and rich array of services: addiction and mental health counseling, primary health clinics, art therapy and creative writing, job training, coaching on soft skills for employment, and nutritious meals. We employ extraordinary professionals – clinical social workers, addiction counselors, psychiatric nurse practitioners, creative arts therapists, doctors, nurses, employment specialists, and more – building our clients’ confidence and sense of self-worth and achievement. We partner with graduate schools and provide training to dozens of interns in social work, medicine and nursing; and they receive real experience and provide added support to our professional staff and clients. And we enthusiastically embrace volunteers, who help inspire our clients and prepare them for the world of work and independence.
Suffice it to say that BRC shelters are busy places, filled with caring professionals, students and volunteers, every day reinforcing the most important message we can to our clients: that they can indeed achieve and succeed; and they do! But you shouldn’t take my word for it; you should come see for yourself. I’d love for you to join us and see firsthand that what we do is different, caring and effective. Let me know if you’d like to visit, or sign up to volunteer. We’re making a difference in the lives of our clients and our City, and we’d love for you to be a part of it. And if you simply want to donate, and leave the work to us, I’d be only grateful.