By Amy Brisson
Inside a small bus depot next to the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, an elderly man took shelter from another freezing night outside.
That’s where volunteers met “Kenny,” a former police officer, during this year’s New York City street homelessness census. The Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE Count) tracks the city’s street homeless population by collecting demographic data, but also gives a glimpse into the lives of the city’s most vulnerable individuals.
Kenny walks with a cane, the result of his struggle with diabetes.
“His medical needs, his leg pain, managing his diabetes – all these things present extra challenges when you don’t have a stable home,” said Lillian Chargin, an Enterprise volunteer at the HOPE count who interviewed Kenny. After they spoke, Lili called a van to transport him to one of the city’s overnight shelters. “The fact that he was willing to be moved to a shelter was a good thing, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” she said, underscoring that this is a temporary solution to a chronic problem.
The HOPE Count is a reminder that people like Kenny often need supports beyond housing. Many homeless individuals struggle with chronic health conditions, disabilities, mental illness or addiction. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, approximately 26 percent of homeless individuals suffer from severe mental illness, and almost 35 percent struggle with substance abuse.
Although the HOPE Count focuses on homeless individuals spending their nights on the street, New York City also faces another serious problem: A growing number of families with children entering the shelter system. For this growing population of families – almost 10,000, including almost 17,000 children – supportive services are vital to helping them transition to permanent independent living.
Employment, education, child care and assistance finding housing are particularly critical, as well as options for intensive treatment for mental health or substance abuse, and long-term supportive housing.
“For me, this year’s count highlighted the sheer complexity of the issues that go into creating the problem of homelessness, “ said Sally Greenspan, who organized the Enterprise volunteers who participated in this year’s count. “And yet, in the end, how simple the solution is: housing with the right combination of income and service supports.”
Sally believes we need to move from a system that manages the homelessness to one that ends it. And we need to develop accurate assessment tools that ensure people get the level and type of intervention tailored to their individual needs.
Creating lasting solutions requires investing in high-quality affordable housing, as well as identifying and refining new models for delivering a range of supportive services in housing.
It also means working with the government and our provider partners to make sure that we have the funding, policies, and on-the-ground expertise necessary to create strategies that go beyond helping manage homelessness for people like Kenny.
Instead, we need to help them come, and stay, home.
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