New York City will direct more than 18,000 of its municipal workers to use 311 to give social service workers real-time information to help them steer the almost 4,000 people who live on the streets into shelters.
The effort, known as Outreach NYC, is the latest attempt from Mayor Bill de Blasio to tackle perhaps the most intractable problem his administration has faced: street homelessness. The problem was highlighted in October when a homeless man, Randy Santos, allegedly bludgeoned four other homeless men to death in Chinatown.
Workers from the departments of parks, sanitation, buildings, fire and health and mental hygiene will be trained to use 311 apps to send detailed service requests to the new homeless services joint command center.
The information will help outreach workers identify the street homeless and begin the delicate and complicated work of convincing them to accept services and shelter.
The mayor has also committed $19 million to hire almost 200 new homeless outreach workers, bringing the total to close to 600.
City officials said Mr. de Blasio was committed to the strategy as a way to reduce the number of unsheltered people as he enters the last two years of his administration. Leading the effort will be Dr. Raul Perea-Henze, who will be announced on Thursday as the new deputy mayor to oversee health and human services.
“We cannot attempt to address this issue in a vacuum,” Mr. de Blasio said in a statement. “Outreach NYC is our all-hands-on-deck approach to bring even more people in off the streets.”
Mr. de Blasio has dealt with record homelessness during his six-year tenure. The approximately 4,000 street homeless represent 5 percent of the 79,000 total homeless people in the city, most of whom are in shelters. As of Tuesday, there were 60,479 people in the city’s primary shelter system, including almost 22,000 children.
Dr. Perea-Henze said he hoped to “accelerate” Outreach NYC over the next two years.
“I believe there is progress being made,” said Dr. Perea-Henze, who dealt with veteran homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction when he served as the assistant secretary for policy and planning in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs during the Obama administration. “But frankly, for the next two years, I will be responsible for making sure that progress accelerates.”
Dr. Perea-Henze has a master’s degree in public health from Yale University and was the first openly gay Latino to be sworn in as a sub-cabinet secretary. A Mexican immigrant, he speaks four languages and started his career at the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, where he developed the division of infectious diseases during the AIDS epidemic. His first partner died from AIDS.
Dr. Perea-Henze is replacing Dr. Herminia Palacio, who resigned in June to become the president and chief executive of the Guttmacher Institute. He takes over an agency charged with overseeing public health, with a particular focus on helping the most vulnerable New Yorkers.
He begins his tenure amid calls to set aside and build more housing specifically for the homeless as part of the mayor’s affordable housing plan. The city has so far struggled to keep pace with Mr. de Blasio’s plan to build 90 new homeless shelters, with many meeting opposition from neighborhood residents.
Although the number of people in shelters has been flat for the first time in a while, Dr. Perea-Henze said “we still need to turn the tide” on the issue.
“Coming in to tackle homelessness is probably the best thing that I can do to help New Yorkers,” he said. Asking city employees to be trained to identify and help the homeless is a natural progression, he said.
Giselle Routhier, policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, said the city’s focus on this new effort was “frustrating” because “the problem with street homelessness is not a lack of outreach workers, the problem is they are not being offered something meaningful like housing or a low-barrier shelter.”
City officials say they have helped 2,200 people who were living on the street move into permanent and transitional housing since 2016. The number of beds in shelters with low barriers for entry, called “safe havens,” has tripled to 1,800, and should increase to 2,100 by the end of Mr. de Blasio’s tenure, officials said.
The coalition has called for the city to build 24,000 new apartments and preserve 6,000 more for the homeless and to speed up the creation of 15,000 units of supportive housing. There are not enough safe haven shelter beds because people are staying in them longer, Ms. Routhier said.
Steven Banks, the commissioner of social services, said the added step of enlisting city employees, who are at work across the city 24 hours per day, to identify the homeless will allow faster emergency response. The nearly 18,000 calls to 311 about homelessness so far this year matches the pace from 2018.
“It’s a force multiplier,” Mr. Banks said. “There’s no substitute for increasing the number of eyes and ears to identify people in need.” He added that outreach workers may need to have dozens of interactions with individuals living on the street before being able to gain their trust and convince them to accept services.
Part of the issue is that many of the persistent street homeless may suffer from mental illness; Mr. de Blasio has faced regular criticism over the failure of ThriveNYC, the $1 billion plan to tackle mental health launched by his wife, Chirlane McCray, to help the most seriously mentally ill.
There are also new concerns about overpolicing of the poor, minorities and the homeless after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced plans to hire 500 new police officers to help deal with homelessness and crime in the subways.
Ms. Routhier said the increase in police officers and the new outreach program would add “more points of contacts without solutions.”
“This looks like mass surveillance of homeless people,” she said.