EXCLUSIVE | NYC agency leaders hear directly from homeless New Yorkers at first-of-its-kind symposium

The Department of Social Services (DSS) held a special day-long, first of its kind symposium Wednesday in which speakers from all walks of life discussed the current state of homelessness in New York City. Shams DaBaron pictured.
Photo by Dean Moses

The Department of Social Services (DSS) held a special day-long, first-of-its-kind symposium Wednesday in which speakers from all walks of life discussed the current state of homelessness in New York City and how the unhoused can be better cared for in the months and years to come.

The symposium spearheaded by DSS Commissioner Gary Jenkins, lasted from noon to 5:30 p.m. at 4 World Trade Center and was dubbed “Beyond Poverty, Real People, Real Solutions.” The event saw city and state DSS officials, Mayor Eric Adams, and those with lived experience on the street meet, enabling shelter residents to rub shoulders with top City and DSS officials.

The social services provider hopes by bringing a variety of voices from contrasting perspectives together, each party can learn from one another and make a meaningful impact regarding the lives of those still sleeping rough or dwindling in congregate shelters.

Mayor Adams kicked-off the discussion on Nov. 16 by admitting that he has made mistakes on his journey to ease homelessness but states he is attempting to do everything he can to turn a corner on this crisis.

The mayor delivered opening remarks. Photo by Dean Moses

“We have to change how we’re doing all this stuff. You have to think differently and be bold enough. You show me a person who has never made a mistake, and I will show you someone that never did anything in their lives. You go to Webster’s [Dictionary] and you will see a picture of my face smiling. I’ve made errors, but I’m the mayor because I was not afraid of that,” Mayor Adams said. 

The mayor also commented on the state of the homeless crisis when he took office and rebuked those who are asking for a solution without stepping up themselves to offer their communities to aid those in need, including politicians who he says have attempted to block his bids to build housing.

“In January, when I went out in the dead of winter, and went inside those encampments in those tents, and I sat down and spoke to people and I saw human waste in the tent, drug paraphernalia, mental health issues. I knew it was wrong,” Mayor Adams said. “Every time we talked about building housing for people, people who were yelling the loudest were standing up and saying you can build it, but don’t build it on my block. You will be amazed at how many elected officials call us to talk about housing but block every attempt we put in place to build that house.  You got to start exposing folks.”

Mayor Eric Adams
Mayor Eric Adams. Photo by Dean Moses

The mayor’s remarks were immediately followed by a panel including Commissioner of Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Daniel Tietz, Senator Roxanne Persaud, and CEO of Robin Hood Richard Buery.

During this discussion Senator Persaud expanded on the mayor’s point regarding those who push back against having housing designed for the Homeless built in their neighborhood and even called out fellow panelists demanding that they do more.

“This is a real conversation, and too often we’ve been afraid to have the real tough conversation, because we think that when we have those conversations, people will come up to us and they do. You know, you’ve heard the mayor say, when we want to place a shelter, it’s our responsibility to ensure that no one in the State of New York sleeps on the street. That is our responsibility as government, and we’ve fallen asleep on that,” Persaud said, also pushing home the fact that the public needs to change how they view the homeless. “The NYPD changed their interaction and stopped giving tickets and talking with them, it changed everything. You have to stop criminalizing homelessness.”

Senator Roxanne Persaud. Photo by Dean Moses

This symposium comes hot on the heels of the mayor’s new plan to find homes for the unhoused by overhauling several governmental assistance programs.

On Nov. 14, Mayor Adams announced changes to the CityFHEPS voucher program to make it easier for eligible New Yorkers to benefit from them, after some said landlords are refusing to accept the voucher that eases the monthly rent burden. CityFHEPS vouchers will be available to any single adult working a full-time minimum wage job. This decision was said to be a result of the Adams administration and DSS speaking directly with the undomiciled to see exactly where they would like to see improvements made.

While attending the symposium, Shams DaBaron, a homeless rights activist and formerly unhoused individual, lauded this effort to connect to those with lived experience. DaBaron was scheduled to speak on a panel regarding his time on the street and told amNewYork Metro that this outreach effort is a major step forward.

“To have a seat at the table of voice and discussion and actually a hand in the decision making is extremely important. So just one particular point that stood out to me, it’s just him [the mayor] centering the fact that on one hand, we have to deal with discrimination from landlords, that’s a reality. But on the other hand, we have to address the decades of city failures, the decades of failed, bureaucratic administrative burdens that make dealing with the city unappealable,” DaBaron said.

This symposium is hoped to become an annual event to ensure the dialogue is kept active moving forward.

Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Manuel Castro and End Domestic Violence and Gender-Based Violence (ENDGBV) Commissioner Cecile Noel watch a panel. Photo by Dean Moses