by Michael Jacobson & Carlina Rivera, April 5, 2023

Every day on the Lower East Side and throughout the city, teams of dedicated, trained outreach workers walk the streets, searching out folks who seem like they may need a helping hand.

Perhaps the people they meet are unhoused and would benefit from a hot meal, fresh clothes, or a medical check-up. Maybe they display signs of mental health issues but don’t know how or where to find the right services that would steer them away from harming themselves or others. Or perhaps they simply need a human connection.

Through proven methods, their own lived experiences, and endless reserves of patience and perseverance, these outreach experts help those who may be in crisis navigate the maze of social service agencies and programs. The end goal is as simple as it is essential: to connect people to voluntary services and support to help them flourish.

This “navigator” model has shown great success in the past, and represents a refreshing break from a failed status quo that has time and time again failed to provide a meaningful solution to our communities’ needs. For far too long, the default response to addressing unhoused people struggling with mental health or substance use challenges has been the criminal legal system — so much so that, in 2020, one in five people sent to Rikers was unhoused and experiencing mental health challenges.

But this isn’t a case of applying a band-aid to a gaping open wound, to use a common analogy: it’s actually the equivalent of ripping open a deep laceration even wider. These individuals — so often our neighbors, our relatives, our friends — don’t need jail; they need treatment, hospitals, and supportive programs. By tossing them into a carceral system that is incapable of addressing the root of these problems, their struggles and conditions will only worsen. To ignore their needs is to condemn people to an endless doom spiral between the streets, shelters, and incarceration that can – and has – resulted in catastrophic tragedy for themselves, or innocent bystanders around them.

Thankfully, there is a better way to dramatically improve — and often save — countless lives, and it’s now getting a huge shot in the arm. A new program launched through the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII) will invest $6 million in a mental health initiative to immediately reach New Yorkers with deeply entrenched needs. The plan deploys networks of navigators like the ones described above who will build relationships – and trust – with people where they are. A rapport is first established by connecting people living on the streets with immediate needs, such as food. Growing the relationship leads to the next round of healthy support and engagement: connecting people to a wider range of wraparound services, like housing assistance and treatment for mental health and substance use disorders. This progression of engagement, fueled by emerging trust, ultimately makes them and their neighbors safer.

This effort, operated in a pioneering partnership between CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, will build on the promising successes of similar past work. In a previous CJII program, created in partnership with the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, community navigators in East Harlem were able to connect with more than 1,880 clients from late 2017 through August 2021. Navigators gave 68% of participants at least one referral, and among those people, 90% accessed one or more of these services referred to them. Since the program’s inception, 61% of participants had some or all of their immediate needs met.

Most promisingly, 39% of those who utilized services through fresh outreach had been disengaged from social services for at least six months prior to enrollment in the program — suggesting a powerful ability to connect with people who may have previously given up on seeking help. One participant noted that she “didn’t feel alone anymore” because she had a Navigator supporting her. 

This groundbreaking outreach also corrects a racial imbalance that infects our shattered criminal legal and health care systems. More than 60% of those incarcerated in New York City jails are Black, as are 56% of heads of household in city shelters (including single adults), even though Black people comprise just 25% of the city’s total population. Quite simply, a path forward to a brighter, healthy, more fulfilling future exists for people who right now are swept aside to the margins of society.

This approach is a vast improvement over the status quo. Rikers is no place for someone grappling with mental health or substance use issues; the notorious facility has descended into chaos and violence, and offers inadequate support for those in need. New York City must reduce its reliance on criminalization, and instead invest in services and programs that build safe communities and center humanity.

In addition to the moral and human value, there is an economic benefit to using community-based supports in lieu of incarceration. At a time when cities and states are experiencing budget crunches, the cost for community-based programs are exponentially lower than a bed at Rikers, ranging from $1,000 for some light-touch interventions to $50,000 for more intensive services per person, compared to more than $550,000 per year per person at Rikers.

But more importantly, there is no price tag that can be applied to turning a person’s life around — or saving it. The value of connecting people with touchpoints in their community can’t be

measured on a ledger sheet or in a budget book. Neighborhoods like the Lower East Side — and the others served by this trailblazing program—will be safer, healthier and more productive. And this is how we build a New York City that lifts up all its people, and gives everyone, no matter the challenges they face, the opportunity to live the life they deserve.

Read here: