At the Bronx Welcome Center, NYC is testing a new approach to sheltering the homeless on the streets

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The site was opened to people leaving the streets and subways on March 28, amid significant backlash from ongoing homeless sweeps and calls from advocates and some elected officials for the city to use the chambers of hotel like private low barrier spaces for outdoor sleepers.

Adi Talwar

The hotel is intended to serve as a relay between the streets and other shelters. City officials say they plan to open similar sites elsewhere in the five boroughs.

In the lobby of a Bronx hotel-turned-shelter last Thursday, a man named Marco sat smiling with a remote control in his hand.

Marco had arrived two days earlier, he said, after spending several months at a friend’s home, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) 30th Street shelter and on the streets. He said the police took him to the hotel in Morrisania when he asked for help because he did not want to stay in a large collective establishment.

He had had a pleasant experience so far and enjoyed watching TV in the room he shared with another person. “I’m not outside, thank God,” he said as the rain fell outside.

The hotel, long used as a shelter for homeless New Yorkers, was abruptly transformed in late March into a so-called “Welcome Center” for homeless New Yorkers by DHS and the charity non-profit Acacia. The installation appears to mean a somewhat different approach to addressing street homelessness for Mayor Eric Adams as he continues to prioritize sweeps of outdoor encampments and subway cars, with the police crack down on people who refuse to leave.

The Bronx location operates as a “pre-assessment” site with 84 short-term beds for people who agree to leave public spaces, DHS said. The hotel is intended to act as a relay between the streets and other shelters, such as shelters and stabilization rooms, DHS officials added. The goal is to get people into these other settings after a few weeks.

“This program exemplifies this administration’s commitment to continuing to find creative ways to encourage homeless New Yorkers to get off the streets and subways and take the first step on the path to stability,” said one. spokesperson for the agency at City Limits in a statement.

The facility is designated as a stabilization site, a place where homeless New Yorkers can find housing without going through the shelter system’s sprawling admissions process. DHS may categorize stabilization sites as emergency measures and the agency does not have to notify the community before opening one (in contrast, Safe Havens, which have on-site social services that often do default at stabilization sites, require public notice that often triggers virulent resistance).

The place is managed by the association Acacia Network, a politically connected non-profit organization with limited experience serving New York’s homeless, but with enough influence among South Bronx elected officials to curb resistance to a new homeless site.

Still, homeless service providers, including those who are supposed to make referrals, say they know little about the initiative.

The welcome center opened its doors to people leaving the streets and subways on March 28, amid significant backlash from ongoing homeless sweeps and calls from advocates and some elected officials for the city to use hotel rooms as private, low-barrier spaces for outdoor sleepers.

Ed Reed / Mayor’s Office of Photography

Mayor Eric Adams and other officials at a street homelessness news conference on March 30.

Three days later, on April 1, DHS held a conference call with street service providers to share the outline of the new drop-in center initiative, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

Three frontline outreach workers interviewed by City Limits over the past week said they were unaware the new site existed.

In response to questions from City Limits, DHS said 30 beds at the hotel were occupied last week and people must be referred there by an outreach team, meaning they cannot ‘s’ self-register”. A man walking away from the building on April 7 stopped to speak briefly with City Limits and said he tried to secure a room in the building but was turned away.

City officials say they plan to open similar sites elsewhere in the five boroughs, but the “welcome center” designation has confused service groups and advocates.

A flexible facility with semi-private rooms appears to be an attractive option for people staying in public spaces, said Homeless Coalition policy director Jacquelyn Simone. The concept is similar to what many homeless New Yorkers and their advocates have urged the Adams administration to provide until they can achieve their ultimate goal of permanent housing.

But Simone said she’s worried people will be forced to leave after a brief stay and that DHS doesn’t communicate time constraints to people moving in. Once someone has secured a bed in a hotel room, they are unlikely to want to leave. to stay in another temporary setting, such as a Safe Haven group, she said.

“We want to make sure the program design and intent is passed on seamlessly to people as they leave the streets,” Simone said.

“Being told you have to move is really stressful and disruptive for people,” she added. “I don’t know if sending them to one site for a few weeks and then moving them to a new site is the best possible strategy.”

She and other advocates who typically listen to the details of DHS policy say they aren’t sure exactly how the drop-in center will work. Simply using the space as a stabilization site may be the most helpful way to encourage people off the streets, she said.

“It’s unclear what the added benefit is of using this facility as a reception center instead of a stabilization bed with private rooms,” she said.

Craig Hughes, a social worker with the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project, said moving people from one shelter to another can have “extremely traumatic and destabilizing” effects and said the city should allow people to stay in hotels until they get an apartment.

“Instead of quarterback measures that only result in another example of moving from shelter to shelter, Mayor Adams should implement housing placements – not just shelter placements – for people on the street, front and center,” Hughes said. “The city should offer everyone placed there the opportunity to stay and quickly place them in permanent housing, not in another shelter.”

Most people on the streets have already tried collective shelters before choosing to leave, according to a survey last year by the Coalition for the Homeless. Refuge and stabilization sites have fewer restrictions and curfews, but they don’t necessarily offer the privacy that many people on the street say they want.

New York City has begun adding Safe Haven and its stabilization capacity in recent weeks as shelters under the mayor’s last administration begin to open. Adams attended the grand opening of a new 80-bed shelter near Lincoln Hospital last month, where he pledged to make 350 beds available within a week.

“This installation is an indicator of what is possible. It’s a safe space with full services,” Adams said. “You can’t get this on the A train overnight. You can’t make that sleep in Times Square. You can’t make that sleep in a cardboard box.

Safe Haven’s occupancy rate has risen steadily since the start of the year, according to daily DHS Census data tracked by City Limits. There were 1,395 people staying at Safe Havens on April 12 compared to 1,162 on January 3, according to city data.

DHS does not routinely report the number of people staying in stabilization beds, but there were 990 available as of the end of last month, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

When City Limits visited the new visitor center on April 7, an Acacia employee sat at a small folding table in the lobby with a book for people to register, while another member of the staff was stationed behind the concierge desk of the hotel. The atmosphere was friendly and the residents seemed relaxed.

Next to Marco, the resident holding the remote control, a man reads a newspaper while two other people enter the hall. One appeared to have his blood pressure checked by a member of staff.

The front desk clerk left briefly to consult with an Acacia administrator who worked at the shelter. The man, an assistant vice president for the organization, declined to answer questions and instead referred all inquiries to DHS.

“I can’t confirm or deny where this place is,” he said as he stood in the hotel lobby.

Just outside the building, a man named David Harris stopped to discuss his experience on his way to a grocery store.

Harris, 42, said he had been sleeping on the subway for two years after his parents died and a family member sold the house where he lived in Brooklyn. He said an outreach worker approached him earlier in the week and asked if he would like to stay at a hotel. The outreach team transported him to the site that day.

“I wanted to try something different,” he said.

He said he started working with a case manager to access benefits and expected to stay at the hotel until he secured permanent accommodation.

“I can stay here for a while,” Harris said. “Until I have my own place.”

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