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Homeless population swelled during first term of Bill de... Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

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8 ways to help the homeless in New York City

The scope of the crisis can feel overwhelming, but there are concrete ways to help

In recent years, as the city grapples with a lack of affordable housing, New York’s homeless population has soared.

According to a 2017 report by Coalition for the Homeless, which has been fighting the city’s homeless crisis since 1981, more than 62,000 men, women, and children currently sleep in city shelters every night—that’s a 79 percent increase in the demand for shelters over the past decade. As the report states, “Extreme income inequality and unanticipated but rapid growth in the overall population of New York City together continue to push those at the lowest end of the income spectrum out of the housing market entirely.”

Add to that the fact that homeless shelters are being constructed more slowly than the city had projected in 2017, and the scope of the crisis begins to feel overwhelming.

But there are a number of organizations providing shelter and resources, coordinating outreach efforts, and pushing for government policy to alleviate the crisis—and there are concrete ways to help these groups. Curbed spoke with representatives from four advocacy groups to find out how New Yorkers can best channel their resources when it comes to helping the homeless.


1. Donate money.

Perhaps the easiest way to support the effort to end homelessness is through monetary donations. The four organizations Curbed spoke with—Breaking Ground, Coalition for the Homeless, Picture the Homeless, and Ali Forney Center—all accept donations through their websites. (And that’s hardly an exhaustive list of NYC organizations—here are even more.)

The current political climate threatens to end funding some of these groups depend on, making donations all the more important. Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, which provides support to homeless LGBTQ youth, says his organization is grappling with the end of roughly $1 million of federal contracts this year. “We just don’t see the Trump/Pence White House offering the same support to the LGBTQ community as the Obama administration did,” Siciliano says.

The center needs about $3.5 million of annual income, outside of government contracts, to continue its full programming. “We are always in extraordinary need of monetary donations,” he says.

2. Donate goods.

For opportunities to donate goods or participate in drives, look no further than Coalition for the Homeless. In the summer, the organization hosts Project: Back to School, a drive that distributes new backpacks and school supplies to homeless children; during the holiday season, it has a toy drive. The organization also runs the Grand Central Food Program every single night, in which a fleet of vans deliver meals to approximately 1,000 people at 23 different sites around the city. (You can volunteer as a driver for that program, help identify drop-off locations for drives, host a drive at your business, or help sort and distribute goods.)

Outside of Coalition for the Homeless, there are a number of other organizations who accept donated goods. Bowery Mission accepts food, clothes linens and hygiene items. Housing Works accepts a variety of goods at its thrift store and bookstore. New York Cares, which runs an annual coat drive, also pulled together a comprehensive roundup of where to send clothing donations.

Macy's And Clothes4Souls Share The Warmth With Bowery Mission
A coat drive at Bowery Mission in December 2017. It’s one of many NYC organizations that accept donations for homeless New Yorkers.
Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for Macy's

3. Volunteer.

There are countless ways to donate your time to homeless outreach, from long term commitments to one-time events. The Ali Forney Center offers a year-long opportunity to serve as a life coach to LGBTQ youth; you can also help cook meals at one of the organization’s shelter sites. Coalition for the Homeless hosts a First Step Job Training Program, in which you could volunteer as a student mentor, mock interviewer, or guest lecturer. Over at Breaking Ground, a non-profit building supportive housing, you can volunteer with the organization’s outreach workers, who engage homeless people and work with them to find housing.

4. Participate in the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate.

Every January, the city’s Department of Homeless Services conducts its annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), a citywide volunteer effort to count every New Yorker sleeping on the street across the five boroughs. The agency conducted its 2018 survey on January 22, and more than 4,200 people participated. While the data from that count has not yet been released, last year’s count found 3,892 homeless individuals living on the streets—a 39 percent increase from 2016.

So mark your calendar now for next year’s count: DHS needs a minimum of 3,000 New Yorkers (who must be 18 or older) to collect this data, which is used to assist outreach teams in engaging and encouraging unsheltered individuals to transition into more stable environments.

5. Advocate for affordable and supportive housing.

Every advocate Curbed spoke with stressed the importance of building more affordable and supportive housing (the latter of which provides on-site services for formerly homeless individuals). “The most important thing to do is learn about the topic and become an advocate for this type of housing in your community,” says Brenda Rosen, CEO of Breaking Ground.

Buildings with supportive housing components often face opposition at community meetings. “There’s a stigma around supportive housing,” Rosen notes. “A very common reaction is to be afraid, or envision something chaotic, unattractive, or unsafe. But if you’ve seen the work of good non-profits like Breaking Ground, you realize that none of what people envision is true.”

Her suggestion in countering that viewpoint? Join your local community board—or simply show up to meetings—and voice your support for these projects. While you’re at it, email or call your elected officials to express support for these projects and ask them to do the same.

6. Push for policies that help the homeless.

Housing policy isn’t the only issue to stand behind. Picture the Homeless, which is made up of current and formerly homeless individuals, advocates for Communities United for Police Reform. It’s an effort to end discriminatory policing practices in New York, particularly toward homeless individuals, through a combination of community organizing, policy advocacy, media and research.

The group’s latest effort was in support of the Right to Know Act, a package to end unconstitutional searches by the NYPD and force officers to identify themselves and explain the reason for any interaction. Rogers, a leader of Picture the Homeless who entered the shelter system 17 years ago (he prefers not to use his full name), asked New Yorkers to stand up for homeless individuals who get searched or harassed by police without clear reason. He adds that Picture the Homeless can also be supported in its work pressuring City Council to improve the services and operations of existing shelters.

A supportive housing development at 1191 Boston Road in the Bronx, developed by Breaking Ground.
Michael Moran for Breaking Ground

Siciliano of the Ali Forney Center highlights a new state policy that hasn’t yet garnered support from Mayor Bill de Blasio. Currently, the city forces young people living in youth shelters to transition into the larger shelter system on their 21st birthday. “The adult shelter system can be very frightening, especially for LGBT youth,” he says. Advocates pushed for years to raise the age limit, and in 2017, New York state changed its homeless youth regulations, giving New York City the opportunity to let those up to the age of 24 stay in youth shelters. “The Mayor has not indicated he’s willing to do this,” Siciliano says. Advocacy and pressure on local pols, he hopes, can sway the mayor to address the issue.

7. Call 311—really.

Many New Yorkers will roll their eyes at this suggestion, but advocates say that it works. “I know a lot of people don’t have any idea what to do, on their way to work, as they see homeless people bedded in the streets,” says Rosen. “We always encourage people to call 311.” When you call, ask for the street outreach team—those calls are forwarded to New York-based non-profits that provide on-the-ground homeless outreach. Breaking Ground, one such organization, will respond “within an hour,” according to Rosen. “We want that information,” she continues. “It might just mean we’re visiting to say hello, or we end up convincing them to come inside. It gives us that opportunity.”

If there appears to be a medical emergency, or someone is in acute crisis or distress, go ahead and call 911. “But in the great majority of cases, calling 311 and asking for a mobile outreach team is the best option,” Rosen says.

8. Get to know NYC’s homeless population.

It can feel like there’s a great divide between non-homeless and homeless New Yorkers. But you can make an effort, through organizations like Picture the Homeless, to lessen it. “There’s often an absence of voices from homeless people at community meetings around issues like housing or shelters,” says Rogers. Work to bring homeless voices to your community meetings, merchant association meetings, church groups, and the like.

And Rogers suggests that New Yorkers have “a willingness to listen to those who have gone through homelessness.” It could be as simple as saying hello.

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