Real Estate Is Funding Eric Adams’s Fifth Homeless ‘Outreach’ Initiative. What’s the End Game?

The partnership split homeless advocates: Some welcomed the additional dollars, arguing “more is better,” while others predicted they would function mainly to keep people off corporate property.

Chris Gelardi   ·   August 2, 2022
A homeless outreach worker watches a man who had refused city services move his belongings during an encampment sweep on August 2 in Manhattan. | Chris Gelardi / New York Focus

A new initiative in New York City, announced last week by Mayor Eric Adams, will funnel $8 million in corporate donations to a homeless services nonprofit organization so it can hire 100 more outreach workers, who will attempt to connect people living on the streets with beds and services.

It’s at least the fifth homeless outreach initiative the mayor has launched since entering office only eight months ago. In February, he deployed outreach teams made up of city workers and cops to move homeless New Yorkers out of the subways. A month later, he launched a massive, ongoing campaign to send homeless outreach workers to engage people living in encampments before sanitation crews and the police forcibly clear them. In April, Adams announced that he was dedicating an additional $12 million of the city budget to further expand homeless outreach, particularly at the end of subway lines. And earlier this month, he unveiled an initiative to deploy volunteers to conduct even more homeless outreach.

Previous rounds of outreach have been slow to achieve their goal: moving people from the streets to homeless shelters or other temporary accommodations. City shelters have a reputation for chaos, dangerousness, and strict rules, leading many unhoused people to refuse the services offered by outreach workers.

In the initial weeks of the encampment clearing campaign, only five people accepted services, despite police and sanitation workers sweeping nearly 250 sites; since then, the city has taken to repeatedly clearing some encampments where residents refuse accommodations. The Adams administration has touted the subway initiative as having funneled about 2,000 people into shelter since February, but the subway outreach teams make contact with more people than that every few days. It’s unclear how long people who accept outreach services stay in shelters.

The latest outreach effort, dubbed the Homeless Assistance Fund, is the first to be paid for by private corporations. In conjunction with the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit membership organization that serves as a broker between business and local government, 61 companies donated the $8 million to homeless services nonprofit Breaking Ground. Most have direct financial stakes in the New York City real estate market.

Some prominent advocacy organizations expressed support for the initiative. “More is better in terms of providing outreach, advocacy, materials, support, information, and referral linkage,” Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless, told New York Focus.

Others charged that it will function less to help homeless people than to sweep them out of high-value economic zones. “Corporate-funded outreach teams will most likely be focused on getting homeless people out of sight and off corporate property, far more than getting them housed,” said Kathleen Cash, homeless and benefits advocate for the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project.

Adams, who counts the real estate industry among his most reliable campaign donors, has repeatedly asserted that revitalizing Covid-battered office districts is among his administration’s top priorities. According to the mayor’s office, the Homeless Assistance Fund outreach will focus on “areas around major transit hubs and dense office districts” and serve areas on private property “not covered by city contracts, such as ATM vestibules, retail spaces, and plazas.”

Meanwhile, available beds in the city — to which outreach workers are supposed to connect unhoused people — are dwindling. The homeless shelter population has surged in recent weeks, forcing families to sleep on floors and prompting the city to lease hotel rooms to cover the overflow. Adams has announced some new shelter projects, but they are unlikely to quickly meet demand.

And more permanent accommodations, like “supportive housing,” have long seen many times more demand than supply. Breaking Ground has pointed to its stock of 4,000 supportive housing units to boost its outreach, but only 4.5 percent of those units are vacant, and “the turnover is low,” Breaking Ground’s president said last week. Citywide, there are about five eligible applications for every available supportive housing placement.

The dynamic has left some wondering: What’s the end game?

The Homeless Assistance Fund’s “target areas” are in some of New York City’s hottest spots for real estate speculation: six in Midtown Manhattan, one in downtown Manhattan, and one in downtown Brooklyn, according to Breaking Ground, the homeless services nonprofit. And most of the donors are deeply invested in property values: They include some of the largest real estate companies in the city, as well as finance, law, accounting, insurance, and consulting firms with hefty real estate portfolios and practices.

Among other Homeless Assistance Fund donors are Fox News Media and News Corporation, whose outlets like Fox News, the New York Post, and The Wall Street Journal routinely portray street homelessness as a driver of violent crime.

Through a spokesperson, Breaking Ground took issue with the notion that the Homeless Assistance Fund is primarily about removing unhoused people from certain areas. “It is antithetical for Breaking Ground to do,” Matt Costantini, a public relations agent representing Breaking Ground, said in an email. “We are focused on providing our fellow unsheltered New Yorkers the services they need and get[ting] connected to housing faster through dedicated teams working intensively within specific areas and retail locations.”

Adams and business leaders announce a homeless outreach partnership at City Hall, July 26, 2022. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Costantini asserted that the “amount of additional boots on the ground in a targeted area” and its focus on private spaces set the Homeless Assistance Fund apart from other outreach efforts, which he described as “substantially more diffuse.”

The Partnership for New York City, which initiated and created the Homeless Assistance Fund, deferred to Breaking Ground to provide comment. The mayor’s office did not respond to a list of questions.

Nortz of the Coalition for the Homeless said she has been vehemently against many of Adams’s homeless initiatives. “The policing of homeless people is wrong, and we have repeatedly criticized that,” she said, referring to the increased subway policing and dismantling of encampments.

But the corporate donations don’t worry her, she said, since private money is already a crucial part of the homeless services ecosystem: “The truth is that all of the really best service provider organizations raise lots of private money to make what we do better.”

She did acknowledge that companies funding specific programs that could benefit their bottom lines could raise concern. “We’re the ones that sued the Grand Central Partnership [in the 1990s] for paying homeless people sub-minimum wage to try to get other homeless people to leave the area,” Nortz said. “I get it. On the other hand, it is a good thing to provide Breaking Ground with private money to help them service more people.”

To emphasize the value of additional outreach, City Hall and Breaking Ground have pointed to a case study of Breaking Ground’s outreach program, preliminary data from which they say show that it “can help someone experiencing homelessness access a transitional housing placement up to three times faster.”

That study was facilitated by the Vornado Realty Trust, whose portfolio centers on its 65 Midtown Manhattan properties, including a 9 million-square-foot, in-progress development at the center of the contentious Penn Station redevelopment plan.

It’s unclear how the Vornado case study arrived at its findings, as Breaking Ground declined New York Focus’s request for a copy of it. “Unfortunately, the Breaking Ground team is not prepared to share the case study at this time,” Costantini said.

Correction: The article previously stated that Vornado Realty Trust is a Homeless Assistance Fund donor. Vornado was a prior backer of a Breaking Ground outreach initiative, but did not donate to the Homeless Assistance Fund.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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