Here's What New York Does When Homeless People Don't Want to Go to Shelters

Darwin lives on the streets of LA.

He had his tent back up minutes after sanitation crews did a deep cleaning on a Skid Row street.

He's lived on the same stretch of sidewalk for 10 years, and though it’s not easy, it's where he say he wants to stay. 

"I’m not on parole or probation. I’m a free man. I want to be treated like a free man. You living in a shelter -- it’s like you living in jail. You gotta be told what to do," he said. 

His attitude is common among the homeless in LA, and a growing cause for concern: As the city spends more than a billion dollars to build new shelters and housing for the homeless, it’s tough to convince many to accept the idea of living indoors. 

"A lot of people would [prefer living on the street]. Because that’s a form of incarceration," Darwin said. 

Homeless advocates call Darwin and others like him as "service resistant" They prefer to stay on the street for reasons ranging from drug addiction to mental health problems.

While Los Angeles struggles with this population, New York City is finally reaching them.

"This is the place to be. The safe haven is the place to be," said Mr. Swindell, a safe haven resident in New York. 

Mr. Swindell used to live in a New York subway, but now stays in a type of shelter called a safe haven.

It’s in a townhome on a quiet Manhattan street, and offers rooms to about two dozen residents with mental health and other services available on site.

But the bigger draw is what’s not at the safe haven. 

There are no curfews, and residents are allowed to use alcohol and drugs.


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"We want to set people up to succeed, not to fail," Bowery Residents Committee CEO Muzzy Rosenblatt said.

Rosenblatt runs the New York nonprofit that created the "safe haven" model.

"Creating these artificial burdens of "you’ve got to get sober first" -- we’re just keeping people out. So we decided we would respond to that and we did and people came in droves. And not only did they come, but they stayed," Rosenblatt said. 

New York City now has more than 1,800 safe haven beds and plans to add hundreds more over the next few years.

Since 2016, they’ve helped get 2,200 people like Mr. Swindell off the street.

"I got no complaints here," Swindell said. 

While Los Angeles is testing the "low barrier" concept with a "bridge home" program, there are only a few hundred of those beds available.

Mayor Eric Garcetti's billion dollar homeless solution is spending the majority of taxpayer funds on building apartment-like housing.

"If we take people who have severe health challenges, be they psychiatric, addictive or physical...then we give them their own apartment where they can isolate -- that’s not a guarantee they’re going to do better," Rosenblatt said. 

Back in LA, Darwin, who admits he struggles with mental health issues, said until he gets a better offer, the sidewalk on skid row is where he’ll stay.

"I want to be free. To use the bathroom when I want to," Darwin said. "Being told what to do, how to do it, all that -- I don’t need that."

While New York City’s safe havens don’t require residents to be sober, they don’t allow alcohol or drugs inside their facilities, and they encourage sobriety.

Operators say sometimes removing the pressure is enough to get them to consider recovery.

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