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NYC top budget watchdog says city has failed to deal with homeless encampments

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

For years, homelessness in America has been trending upward - up 6% from 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Like in a lot of places, unhoused people in New York City have taken up to setting encampments - often makeshift housing, like tents, in public areas. Last year, New York Mayor Eric Adams introduced a controversial policy to clear those encampments, remove people from them and offer them housing. But a year later, Brad Lander, the city's comptroller, conducted an audit of the mayor's policy, calling it a limited success, and he joins me now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BRAD LANDER: Great to be with you, Scott.

DETROW: So your office looked into this program. The report, like I said, framed it as a limited success, but you were much more blunt. You said in the press conference, quote, "by every measure, the homeless sweeps failed." So what specifically isn't working?

LANDER: So most significantly, people aren't getting connected to services or shelter or permanent housing. The city's agencies did hundreds of sweeps. Those sweeps forcibly removed 2,308 homeless New Yorkers. Only three of them got permanent housing.

DETROW: So three - not a percentage - a number.

LANDER: Three individually - so 99.9% of the folks that were forcibly removed in those sweeps are still homeless.

DETROW: And do you have a sense from this report - is the problem the initial conversation of here are the services offered? Is the problem not following up? What is breaking down?

LANDER: Look, folks who are sleeping on the street are more likely to be chronically homeless or more likely to have mental health disorders or more likely to have substance abuse problems. And building the trust and connection and relationships that help them address and solve those issues is challenging. And what it takes is - social work training is good relationship building and is a real path to housing. If all you're doing is saying, I'm here to destroy your belongings and kick you out to somewhere else, that person becomes less likely, we think, to accept a path to shelter or services, and what was already hard gets even harder.

DETROW: Mmm hmm. And the mayor's office is pushing back on this characterization. The claim is that New Yorkers experiencing unsheltered homelessness accepted services at six times the rate they did under the previous administration's approach. What's your response to that?

LANDER: They're actually talking about different programs that we think are good. Separate from the sweeps, they opened some new kinds of shelters - what they call Safe Haven and stabilization beds that are less bureaucratic than shelters - and people did want to go into them. And they've started a very small program called Street to Housing, which helped 80 people move off the streets into permanent housing. Those are the programs that are working and that they cited in their quote. The sweeps failed, and they really don't have any evidence to show otherwise.

DETROW: I mean, so many cities are facing similar challenges. There are encampments all over Washington, D.C. Los Angeles is having enormous problems along these lines as well. You've looked closely at this plan now. You're saying it's not working. What can other cities learn from this?

LANDER: The thing we looked at in this report is a policy called Housing First, which says don't put up a lot of barriers. Don't make people get clean first or deal with their mental health issues while they're sleeping on the street. Who could do that? Connect people to permanent housing and wrap services around them in that housing. And the evidence from programs around the city in Denver, in Philadelphia and even in New York with veterans shows that that policy works 70- to 90% of the time. Those housing-first policies really do seem to be a key.

DETROW: Is that doable in a moment like now, where you're seeing a lot of cities, a lot of states shift back towards budget crunches, budget deficits, as opposed to the extra money from the federal government and a strong economy?

LANDER: The thing is, if you don't take a housing-first approach, you're going to pay much more in other ways. What we found that - was that the average nightly cost of supportive housing using that housing-first model is $68 a day. But sending someone to jail for the night, which often happens after a sweep, is over $1,400. So it might sound like it costs money to stand up a housing-first program, but there's good evidence it'll save you money in the long run.

DETROW: That's New York City Comptroller Brad Lander. Brad, thanks so much.

LANDER: Thank you, Scott. Really great to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.