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New York City to Expand Homeless Outreach - The Wall Street Journal

Mayor Bill De Blasio announces aggressive new strategy at meeting with business leaders

A new task force will address street homelessness block by block and have the capability to send teams on scene within an hour of a resident reporting a homeless person, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday.

The mayor described the effort in remarks to a business group, just days after he announced the resignation of the homeless-services commissioner and said City Hall would conduct a top-to-bottom review of the city’s work on homelessness.

The initiative marks one of the most visible moves by Mr. de Blasio to address homelessness, which has become an increasingly intractable political problem for the mayor.

There are more than 58,000 people in shelters, but the specific target of the new effort is the homeless on the street, who the mayor said can “make many New Yorkers uncomfortable, and even fearful.”

The initiative will be known as NYC Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement Street Action Team—or HOME-STAT, Mr. de Blasio explained in a breakfast speech to the Association for a Better New York.

It will create a centralized approach to working with the street homeless, blending information gathered by the New York Police Department and the Department of Homeless Services, and assign each “street- homeless individual a dedicated caseworker who will make it their mission to get their clients off the street and into a healthier place, permanently,” Mr. de Blasio said.

At the core of the effort: the outreach staff, dressed in bright green uniforms, which will grow from 175 to slightly more than 300 and cover “hot spots” for homelessness from Canal Street to 145th Street in Manhattan and in areas of the other boroughs. The workers connect the homeless with services and collect data on the issue.

“Outreach teams have existed for some time, but haven’t always had the resources they need to make the kind of impact they are capable of,” the mayor said.

Mr. de Blasio compared the data-collection effort, which will in effect track homelessness in real time, to the NYPD’s Compstat crime-tracking model. He said HOME-STAT would be fully operational by March.

In describing the initiative, Mr. de Blasio mounted a forceful defense of his policies, telling the audience the problem began decades ago but was “supercharged” by the recession and the rising cost of housing.

“In the face of skyrocketing housing costs, wages remaining flat, and the plummeting number of rent-regulated apartments, thousands upon thousands of families simply couldn’t afford their rent,” Mr. de Blasio told the business group.

The mayor spoke about homelessness for more than a half-hour. Brief, polite applause broke out when he spoke of the city’s removal of 30 homeless encampments.

“Now, I want to make something clear. It is not illegal to be homeless, and those experiencing this painful reality take no joy in it,” Mr. de Blasio said.

“But it is illegal to harass New Yorkers, use drugs, erect a makeshift shelter, urinate in public and commit other quality-of-life crimes.”

The mayor said New Yorkers who call the city’s 311 number for nonemergencies to report homeless individuals will receive a response within an hour. Residents also can make a complaint through an app on a smartphone.

“Anyone can call 311 to report someone on a particular street,” Mr. de Blasio said. “Through HOME-STAT, we will ensure a professional is there within an average of one hour to address the problem.”

Later, a mayoral spokeswoman said cost of the initiative would be minimal but didn’t immediately have an estimate.

Throughout the day, officials at City Hall sent statements praising the mayor’s approach to the issue from elected officials, civic leaders and advocates for homeless New Yorkers.

In one of the statements, Mary Brosnahan, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless, said the city’s approach would “at long last, bring thousands of homeless New Yorkers in off the streets and into permanent housing.”

Others, though, said they were concerned the initiative could vilify homeless New Yorkers who need help instead of encouraging people to treat them with compassion.

“I’m worried that it sends a message that we don’t want to send, which is that we target people who are homeless,” said Judith Goldiner, the attorney in charge of the civil-law reform unit at the Legal Aid Society. “That’s not who New Yorkers are.”

Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, said he had no such fears and called the mayor’s plan “a step in the right direction.” But he offered a caution against seeing the initiative as a quick fix.

“The only concern that I have is if people get the impression that there’s a silver bullet that is going to eliminate everybody being on the street very quickly.”

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