ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
New York City has some very rich neighborhoods and also some very poor neighborhoods. It also has more than 30,000 homeless people and an overcrowded shelter system. To confront that problem, the city has identified neighborhoods where people are at risk. It wants to keep residents in their homes and off the streets.
NPR's Rachel Jones reports.
RACHEL JONES: Here's the thing about Amanda Rosa Brown's job, you can't just walk up to people and ask them if they're about to become homeless.
Ms. AMANDA ROSA BROWN (HomeBase Program): Because what you get is maybe pride or maybe, you know, they're really not in that situation and they take offense to it. Like, oh, do I look homeless. And it's like no this is a homeless prevention program. We're trying to prevent homelessness.
JONES: Rosa Brown is standing near the East Freemont Avenue subway stop in the Bronx. She's holding a thick packet of pink and white leaflets for a program called HomeBase.
Unidentified Man: Hey, HomeBase.
Ms. BROWN: Hi, how are you.
Unidentified Man: I like HomeBase.
Ms. BROWN: We're just trying to get the word out, letting people know that we're here to assist those in the community district and helping them in their housing crisis.
Ok, so if you know anybody, they can give us a call.
JONES: New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes they'll call, too. That's because he knows that on average it costs the city about $35,000 a year to house a homeless a family. The HomeBase program is a lot cheaper. It costs about $4,000 per family. And that's the point.
City officials identified the six poorest neighborhoods. They wondered what would happen if you found out what the people there needed before they became homeless. That's where Rosa Brown comes in.
She is talking to a young man in a black hooded sweat suit when Yvonne Grant walks up. She just lost her job of 26 years as a hotel housekeeper and she hasn't been able to make the rent.
Ms. BROWN: Your daughter just went into a shelter?
Ms. YVONNE GRANT: Yeah, last night. She got three kids and she's on her way to having another one.
Ms. BROWN: What happened?
Ms. GRANT: She was living with me and she's pregnant again and I've only got two bedrooms. My mother's staying with me. I have another daughter and a son and I have all of us sleeping in a two-bedroom apartment. So she don't like to listen and she's only 22 and I tell her if she can't listen to me she don't need to be staying there.
Ms. BROWN: Rosa Brown hands her a flyer and tells her to make an appointment. HomeBase could help Grant find a job or help her with the rent. They could also help her daughter find a place of her own. The goal is to help families stay connected in their own neighborhoods.
Ironically, New York City's Department of Homeless Services is smack in the middle of one of the most powerful neighborhoods in the world - Wall Street. Commissioner Rob Hess says HomeBase operates on a single principle.
Mr. ROB HESS (Department of Homeless Services): I think we can learn a great deal from listening to people that are experiencing homelessness. And I think it's one of things we haven't done very well historically.
JONES: To Hess, listening leads to solutions. He learned that while directing Homeless Services in Philadelphia. That city's homeless population had dropped by 60 percent when Bloomberg tapped Hess to do the same thing.
Mr. HESS: Our target is to reduce it by two thirds before we leave office, both on the streets and in our shelters. I mean, that's just the kind of mandate that you get once in a career.
JONES: For Amanda Rosa Brown, that means eight hours of work, five days a week, in Bronx housing projects, parks, businesses and at bus stops.
(Soundbite of traffic)
JONES: Ruth Cortez is sitting on a concrete ledge with her nine-year-old daughter Victoria. They just found a one bedroom apartment after 18 months in the city's emergency assistance unit or EAU. While her mother takes a breath, Victoria explains how they wound up there.
Ms. VICTORIA CORTEZ: We used to live in my grandmother's apartment, but then we couldn't so we went to the EAU, which is horrible. Then we went to the shelter where you've got to walk, also horrible. And then we had to wait a long time, another horrible. And now we live in an apartment building, which is better.
JONES: Why do you like where you are now?
Ms. CORTEZ: Because if you get into problems, at least there's no cops always coming. And then there's always complaints. And then there's always a fight.
JONES: Cortez takes a flyer from Rosa Brown and says she's glad a program like it exists. She doesn't need it now, but Cortez is a single mother with three children. Rosa Brown knows that one accident or illness could put the Cortez family right back into a shelter.
Rachel Jones, NPR News.
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