7 On Your Side: Coronavirus pandemic puts spotlight on NYC homelessness crisis

There has been a growing increase in the number of 311 calls over homeless individuals since the start of the pandemic
NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- Statistics show a growing awareness to homelessness in the city amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As the coronavirus pandemic turned parts of New York City into a ghost town, some of the city's most vulnerable residents and the challenges they face became increasingly apparent.

New Yorkers began contacting 311 regarding homeless encampments and individuals spending long periods of time on the city's sidewalks and park benches with increasing regularity.

So to did questions over what services the city was providing to those in need of shelter.

Through early August 2020, reports to 311 regarding homelessness were up roughly 72% compared to the same time last year.

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While some of those reports could have been related to the same incident, the statistic speaks to the growing awareness of homelessness in the city.

"We really have to help the homeless and there are no solutions in place whatsoever," said Michael Fischer, President of the Central Park Civic Association, an organization addressing challenges facing New York. "They are worried for their safety. I know people in my building have called 311 and they aren't getting any response."

The number of single adults experiencing homelessness had also climbed roughly 3% since the pandemic began, according to the city's daily census count.

Homeless advocates predict those numbers could continue to grow amid ongoing financial hardships related to the pandemic.

"We are really honestly at the beginning in seeing how bad it could get," said Giselle Routhier, Policy Director with the Coalition for the Homeless. "So many people have lost jobs and income. So many people in New York City were precariously housed before this started."

While visiting a soup kitchen in Chelsea, several homeless individuals told Eyewitness News that they have stayed away from often crowded New York City shelters amid the pandemic for their safety, possibly increasing the number of individuals choosing to sleep on the streets.
"It's a lot safer than most of the shelters out here," one man said. "I can basically control my environment."

The Coalition for the Homeless has called on the city to do more to help individuals experiencing homelessness, especially during the pandemic, and have offered several recommendations, including expanded housing options and increased access to testing.

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"Homeless folks are not facing a great array of options," Routhier said. "What is really evident throughout this crisis is that housing is healthcare and for people who lack access to housing they have been unable to abide by many of the public health guidelines that we have all been hearing about constantly for months on end now."

In Chelsea, growing concerns prompted residents to launch a petition calling on the mayor, the speaker and the City Council for action.

In addition to increased encampments, residents reported a new group of street vendors along Sixth Avenue, who have taken up part of the sidewalk in a swamp-meet-like fashion to sell household items.

Residents complain the city has offered little to no enforcement.
"So if our politicians' goal is for people to leave the city then they are doing it the right away," Fischer said. "The biggest problem we are having right now is leadership. There is a complete lack of leadership."

The mayor's office declined comment on inquiries from Eyewitness News about street vending along Sixth Avenue and deferred to the Department of Social Services to comment on the city's efforts to provide services to those experiencing homelessness.

"Anytime our outreach teams encounter an individual living unsheltered, we work to engage them and offer services. Anytime the City encounters, learns of, or receives a report about a condition on the street that needs to be addressed, the City addresses it as quickly as possible, with City Agencies responding as appropriate. During that process, whenever DSNY or DOT or another partner Agency addresses a condition, we at DHS and our not-for-profit social service provider partners are on hand, discussing directly with any unsheltered individuals who may be there at the time the range of resources/services available to them, and coordinating with partner Agencies as needed. Through the process, we're focused on preserving the trust our outreach teams develop with these individuals every day, and building on those relationships, as we acknowledge their humanity and encourage them to come off the streets. Engaging those in need isn't easy or quick work, nor is accepting services for those who've lived unsheltered for some time - it requires persistence, compassion, and trust and we will keep coming back. To that end, whenever there is the need to address an inter-agency response to a condition on the streets, ahead of those operations, we provide notice to unsheltered New Yorkers, outlining the process, next steps, and the options available to them. And during operations, those outreach teams are present, engaging those in need, recognizing their essential humanity, and ensuring any valuable property is respected and protected," wrote DSS spokesperson Isaac McGinn in a statement.

Last year, the Department of Social Services increased its focus on outreach to individuals living on the streets and announced plans to increase its homeless outreach team from roughly 400 individuals to nearly 600 citywide, according to a Department spokesperson, who also indicated those teams have been active during the pandemic.

Despite city efforts, the increased visibility of individuals sleeping on the streets, has many residents wondering who is helping individuals in need of assistance and whether the city is doing enough.

"They are being ignored and constituents that count on politicians to do the right thing are being ignored as well," Fischer said.

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