NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new initiative Thursday that he said will literally reach every person currently living on New York City streets.
De Blasio unveiled the program called HOME-STAT, or Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement Street Action Team, before a group of hundreds of the city's top movers and shakers at the Association for a Better New York breakfast.
"Every single street homeless person had their own path to the street," he said. "If we do our job right, every single one of them will have their own path away from the street."
He said teams will canvass every block from Canal Street to 145th Street in Manhattan daily as well as other selected areas in the other boroughs to reach out to the homeless.
"It is not illegal to be homeless and those experiencing this painful reality take no joy in it," de Blasio said. "But it is illegal to harass New Yorkers, use drugs, erect a makeshift shelter, urinate in public and commit other quality of life crimes."
The plan will also have a component for the public.
"When you call 311, when you say, 'I see a homeless person in distress, I see someone doing something inappropriate, I see someone in need,' within one hour, a city professional will be there to assess the problem," de Blasio said.
In addition, the program will add 100 police officers to both make arrests for illegal activity and help the response teams.
"I want to underscore that I do not tolerate illegal activity on the streets of New York City, including the kind of aggressive panhandling, harassment or other acts New Yorkers sometimes experience from some who are on the streets – whether or not they're homeless," de Blasio said.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said he's hopeful it will finally make a difference.
"I'm very optimistic about it, these are very service resistant people," he told CBS2's Marcia Kramer. "We'll be focusing additional attention on the behavioral issues the mayor talked about, those illegal activities that we can do something about."
Bratton said he also wants to propose new legislation, 1010 WINS' Juliet Papa reported.
"To allow us to legally address some of the behavior that's inappropriate and may be illegal," he said.
HOME-STAT will also have a centralized operation for working with the city's street homeless.
"This has literally never existed before," de Blasio said. "We will assign each street homeless individual a dedicated caseworker who will make it their mission to get their clients off the street and into a healthier place, permanently."
CBS2 consultant Bob Mascali, a former commissioner of Homeless Services under mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, said de Blasio's program might work.
"I think it's very encouraging. I think we have to reduce street homelessness right now. The present system is not working. Recent statistics show the outreach teams made 333 contacts but only 4 placements," said Mascali.
Mary Brosnahan, President and CEO of Coalition for the Homeless, applauded the effort.
"We believe Mayor de Blasio's analysis and restructuring plan will, at long last, bring thousands of homeless New Yorkers in off the streets and into permanent housing," she said in a statement.
De Blasio has faced sharp criticism that he was too slow to react to what many New Yorkers see as a burgeoning homeless problem.
For months, CBS2 has shown the mayor pictures, including one of a homeless man bathing in the fountain in Columbus Circle and another of a woman with her pets begging in front of an Upper West Side theater.
There are nearly 58,000 people living in the city's homeless shelters and more than 23,000 of them are children. An additional 3,000 to 4,000 people are estimated to be living on the city's streets.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the state may even step in to combat the crisis.
After initially downplaying the issue, the mayor now admits this is a major problem, WCBS 880's Peter Haskell reported.
"I have heard the deep worries of New Yorkers, loud and clear. And every single day, my administration is intensely focused on these concerns," de Blasio said Thursday. "I take this unease very seriously."
But the mayor made clear that he believes the problem predates his time in office, saying homelessness is "one issue that has been a persistent challenge not just for years, but for decades."
"I can tell you with 100 percent confidence that on my watch, we are never going back to those bad old days," he said. "We will never permit quality of life to erode."
He said skyrocketing housing costs and a "plummeting" number of affordable housing are partially to blame.
One thing not in the plan: drop-in centers like the one on West 30th Street, which experts say are less intimidating.
"The drop-in centers are literally an oasis for the street homeless. They can come in, they can get food, they can get showers, they can get medical attention and meet with a social worker," said Mascali.
Mascali said during the last administration, the city cut the number of drop-in centers in half and he suggested the city should increase current capacity from 500 to 1,000 per day.
Earlier this week, he announced a comprehensive review of the Department of Homeless Services and its relationship with the Human Resources Administration. Both agencies work in coordination to provide services and resources to help combat the homelessness issue.
Mayoral spokeswoman Karen Hinton also confirmed Tuesday that Gilbert Taylor, the head of the beleaguered Homeless Services agency, is stepping down. He was appointed in early 2014.
Last month, de Blasio unveiled a $2.6 billion homeless program. It aims to create 15,000 new housing units for the homeless over the next 15 years and offer social services such as mental and physical health care, and substance abuse programs.
The mayor said HOME-STAT, which is being funded with existing DHS dollars, will be fully operational by March.
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