How Can NYC Make Shelters Safer? We Asked Four People on the Front Lines
A longtime shelter resident, an advocate for homeless people, an academic expert, and the union president representing shelter security officers on what can be done.
People openly smoke crack in bed. Weapons like brass knuckles and stun guns are stashed inside lockers. And there’s the constant fear of being assaulted or robbed.
The city’s 163 buildings with shelters for single men and women have long been plagued by violence and disarray. Homeless people living on the streets, in interview after interview, have told THE CITY they’d rather take their chances on trains or sidewalks.
Underground, Mayor Eric Adams has vowed to remove people sleeping on the trains or in stations as part of his so-called Subway Safety Plan. But just 22 of 1,000 subway homeless contacted by city outreach teams in the first week accepted shelter.
On the streets, life has always been tough and in some cases fatal. Police on Monday said they believe a serial killer is targeting unhoused people in both New York City and Washington.
THE CITY spoke separately to four people who are on the front lines: a woman experiencing homelessness, an advocate for the homeless, an academic who focuses on shelters and the union president who represents shelter security officers.
They were asked one major question: what should be done to improve conditions so shelters can be safe and supportive places to go?
Here’s what they had to say:
(Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Charmel Lucas has lived in numerous city shelters since losing her Coney Island apartment after it was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. She’s living in a shelter in midtown Manhattan with her partner.
Lucas: “Number one: hire the right staff for shelters. From my own experience they are mixing a lot of people suffering from mental health issues with people who are not. So I think each shelter should have the right equipped people to handle every single situation.
It’s almost like the subway. You got mental health, you got people trying to go to work dealing with that aggravation, and you got schizophrenia.”
Jacquelyn Simone is policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, one of the city’s largest nonprofits assisting people without permanent housing.
Simone: “It’s important to note that there are tens of thousands of people who sleep in the shelter system on any given night. But there are also several thousand people who avoid the shelters and in many cases that is related to past experiences with the shelter system where they did not feel safe.
The shelter system is currently primarily a congregate system where people are sharing dorms with many strangers. And I think that even in a well-run shelter, if the design of the facility is such that people are sharing, sleeping, and bathing and dining in areas with many other strangers, people won’t feel safe and secure.
So what we saw during the pandemic is that when people were moved out of those congregate facilities and into single or double occupancy hotel rooms, in order to protect them from COVID-19, we also saw that many people reported that they felt safer and and were able to relax more in those hotels because they went from a dorm with many strangers into a more private setting.
And I think that that’s why we want to encourage the city to utilize the lessons of the pandemic, to really rethink the way that the shelter system is designed and to ensure that people have more of that privacy that will also help them feel much safer.”
Henry Love, a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center focusing on race and homelessness in shelter environments. He has visited numerous shelters around the city in his research and provided some technical assistance to staff.
Love: “We’ve been doing hotels for a long time and we did it for families and it was horrible. It’s a nightmare for providers to get people services. During the pandemic, and in an absolute crisis, it made sense. But if we are talking about something that’s not a one-week turnaround it doesn’t make sense.
I’m in a hotel right [for work] now and I literally have a garbage can full of food right now because you can’t cook. It’s expensive. The city is spending a premium dollar on it. It’s incredibly not cost efficient.”
Simone: “We’ve done surveys of people on the streets where they express that they avoided the shelter system because they felt that it did not meet their need for safety, dignity and agency. So there’s always going to be problems related to strict curfews and the quality of services and the quality of food that people are given and other reasons why people might want to avoid the shelter system. But I do think that from a safety perspective, people would feel much safer and more secure if they had their own room as opposed to being in a large dorm with many strangers.”
Lucas: “I just have a room with a bathroom. Like a regular hotel. Some rooms have to share bathrooms. Two families in a room. But thank God me and my partner we got our own bathroom. I’ve heard some horror stories.”
Simone: “In the past, the city has tried to address safety issues by just increasing the presence of security guards in shelters. I understand that impetus, but it also needs to be balanced with the need to make the shelters feel more like a home and not a prison.
So if you just surge more and more security officers into the shelters, people will feel like they are in a more carceral environment. And especially given that many people were formerly incarcerated because they’re still discriminated against in housing based on prior arrest or conviction history, I don’t know if increasing security guards is necessarily the wisest use of resources.”
Greg Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents the 458 active shelter security officers.
Floyd: “We need more officers. There’s a shortage. They kept opening up shelters during the de Blasio era without hiring enough people to cover the shelters. They diluted the workforce.
They had a man [in a shelter] stabbed to death in his sleep. Some of the people come straight from Rikers. Some of the people committing crimes in our streets they trace back to a shelter in Queens. They don’t have security there, but those individuals were committing crime and robbing people. Somebody has to monitor them to make sure things are OK. They open up shelters in residential areas.”
Love: “What do we need to do on the street to get people to a place where they would feel safe? That’s not putting more police presence in shelters, or criminalizing people who are on the street who are dealing with extreme psychiatric issues.
People just want resources. If people had money or they had guaranteed income to help them stabilize, or even to be able to spend a few nights getting a hotel room and cleaning up and then trying to go out. That could do wonders and that’s an immediate thing unlike that is an immediate thing that would probably be much more impactful than increasing the security budget in shelters.
I’m in California right now and I’m working with some groups on guaranteed-income projects, particularly with youth who are experiencing homelessness.That’s what people want. There’s a group of folks, yes, who may be extremely psychotic, like the gentleman who pushed the woman into the train. But that is not the majority of people.
Think about you or me. If we were on the street at night, we would probably not be in a good mental state. In the middle of the winter when it’s just isolating, it’s horrible, and giving people just access to $1,000 a month or something to just stabilize and to figure out how they can navigate their situation.”
Floyd: “Here’s how I would tackle the problem. You have the New York City Housing Authority. You have vacant apartments there. Instead of giving the money to hotels, give the money to rehab those apartments.
I’d house people with families first in those apartments. You can pay NYCHA the rent, which is a fraction of the cost of a hotel room. That’s a saving towards the city. Then you can put that money and focus on individuals and take them one by one to place them in shelters or homes. That’s the way you tackle the problem.
You will have individuals who are violent or in need of mental health and you take those separately. It’s not just one size fits all. The way you tackle a problem is you take it a little bit at a time. I just watched them open up shelters and take them to New Jersey in places that had no heat. I watch these stories on TV and wonder why are we paying for something and not getting what we paid for.
Love: “A study came out last year in Vancouver last year. They had reductions in substance abuse when they gave people living on the street guaranteed income. They had amazing outcomes. It’s not a silver bullet by any means. But it’s a good stepping stone as we really think of the overarching issue which is the commodification of healthcare and housing. And so until those big things are addressed, this is sort of a Band-Aid-ish sort of approach that puts power back into those who are experiencing it as opposed to spending thousands of dollars on shelters beds.
We’ve seen this around the globe. America’s still stuck in this, demonizing people who are experiencing homelessness, we’re going to criminalize them. I was speaking to a man who was on the street. My friends didn’t want to give him money because they thought he’d just buy liquor. And I’m like, ‘We just came from a nightclub, and we’re drinking, because we’re stressed at work. Why can’t he have a drink because he’s sleeping on the street at night by himself with his dog?’”
Lucas: “I’m not a social worker or anything. I just go by living experiences. But if the social worker isn’t specialized in schizophrenia or other mental health issues, what’s the social worker supposed to do? Just keeping that person on the back burner. It’s just a real unbalance.
There’s a lady here just talking to the traffic. After a while she comes back inside. But where’s her help? Where’s mine? Why am I in here for 10 years?
Smaller shelters. Less time in the shelter. I’ve been in the system for almost 10 years and done everything they’ve asked me to do. They kept changing my shelter and started all over again. It’s ridiculous.”