NEW YORK - The seconds wink by relentlessly on the large digital clock in Rob Hess' conference room: 766 days, 13 hours, 15 minutes, 58 seconds remaining at this particular moment in late November.

The countdown clock is there to remind Hess how long he has to make good on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's promise to cut by two-thirds the number of New Yorkers living on the streets.

"It gives us the focus we need - I think," quips Hess.

Hess, 52, was recruited nearly two years ago by Bloomberg - the clock is the mayor's gift - after almost five years as Mayor John F. Street's homeless czar.

Running New York's Department of Homeless Services "was too tempting not to do," Hess said about what he calls "the largest and most complex agency of its kind in the world."

In Philadelphia, Hess ran a program recognized as the national model for homeless outreach: small teams daily fanning across Center City, building relationships with homeless people until they reached that "window of opportunity" when a person agrees to come inside.

When New York called, Philadelphia was still a model for outreach. But Hess' larger goal - creating new long-term housing for homeless people - had hit a wall of neighborhood opposition that neither Street nor City Council seemed able to overcome.

Today, every large city is looking for ways to reduce homelessness. Arguably, no city is tackling the issue as aggressively as New York.

Bloomberg's charge to Hess had the hard simplicity of a battlefield command: Reduce the numbers from 4,200 to "below 1,429" by the end of 2009. Period.

Charts in Hess' office chronicle how close he is to being on schedule.

Like everything about New York, the scope of homelessness is oversize. Hess estimates that 3,500 people now live on the streets of the city's five boroughs, with 35,636 - 6,946 single adults, 9,327 families - in shelters.

That's about one homeless person for every 202 New Yorkers. Philadelphia has fewer: one for every 366 Philadelphians.

Paradoxically, Philadelphia's street homeless - numbering 621 last summer - are far more visible because they cluster near City Hall. In New York they haunt the city's 24-hour subway system.

"Will we reach them? I don't know," Hess said. "Are we going to work every day to move as close to them as we can possibly move to them before this [clock] has all zeroes on it?


An abrupt change of direction

There are many theories about the origins of and solutions to homelessness. Hess' countdown clock left little time to theorize. Instead, he picked a tough approach that "did not endear me to a lot of people," he said.

Hess decided he would have to shake up a bureaucracy clinging to policies dating to 1979, when the courts ruled that New York's homeless have a "right to shelter." As a result, the number of shelter beds had mushroomed.

Hess convened a private meeting of homeless-outreach workers and told them Bloomberg was serious: "Tell me what works, what doesn't work, what you would need to achieve that goal."

After his staff and outreach workers agreed on priorities, he canceled city contracts with all agencies providing homeless services and started afresh.

The city's five boroughs would each have just one agency as the "point of accountability," overseeing all needed subcontracts.

"Your objective is going to be to move from this number to this number . . . and we'll give you the resources to get it done," Hess told agency managers.

New York is spending a lot of money - about $678 million. That includes $129 million in rental subsidies for long-term housing and for those who have housing but are facing financial trouble. Almost half the total budget, including a third of rent subsidies, is funded by New York City taxpayers.

Hess said his department had also taken 3,000 federal Section 8 housing vouchers from the city Housing Authority to return homeless singles and families to community housing.

But those resources did little to comfort the agencies that had just learned their world had been upended. For two weeks, Hess said, "phones were ringing off the hook at City Hall." Neither Hess nor Bloomberg retreated.

Beyond temporary shelter

Stephan Russo, executive director of the Goddard Riverside Community Center, had seen New York's shelter system fail to reach those who needed it most.

The city's inveterate homeless "were voting with their feet," said Russo, whose agency had formerly been paid to make contact with homeless people, even if they chose not to come off the streets.

When Goddard won the new contract as the "point of accountability" for the newly formed Manhattan Outreach Consortium, Russo's workers entered what he called a "cultural and practice shift."

The new city contract assigns them geographic areas and quotas, with fiscal penalties for missing benchmarks.

Outreach workers are paid for getting street people into long-term housing - and, for the first time, they can do it immediately, rather than after a waiting period in a shelter.

The approach is known nationally as Housing First.

The motto of Bloomberg's plan is "Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter." It de-emphasizes emergency shelters, focusing instead on quickly moving homeless people into permanent housing and then providing support to help them deal with addiction and other problems.

Members of the Manhattan outreach team carry computers that let them immediately match the person with a vacancy in the consortium's stock of 2,000 supportive-housing units.

It's a change that seems to be making a difference, not just with homeless people but with landlords skittish about such tenants.

"Housing providers are taking people they never took before - a little riskier - and having the [support] staff on site," Russo said.

The transitional 'Next Step'

On a gray, rainy morning, the Jamaica Family Residence - home for 46 families, including nine children and 17 newborns - is quiet.

The infants are in a nursery, the children in neighborhood schools, and most adults are working, looking for work, or apartment hunting.

Housed in an old community hospital in Jamaica, Queens, it is one of 25 Next Step centers - transitional places for families reluctant to leave the safety of shelters.

"Nothing is more expensive than shelter," Hess said. "We want to stabilize [shelter residents] . . . and have them move back into the community, which is the highest and best outcome, with whatever supports they need, as quickly as possible."

At the Jamaica residence, there are medical personnel, security guards, counselors and maintenance workers. Because families can come from anywhere in the city, a schools employee is on hand to arrange bus transportation for children who want to stay in their home schools, or to find a place for them in a school in Queens.

When he arrived in New York, Hess said, he found 46 families who had lived in city shelters for more than five years. About 100 individuals had lived in shelters eight to 20 years.

All 46 families are now in permanent housing, Hess said, and only a handful of long-term individuals remain in shelters.

The foundation of Next Step is structure: wake-up calls and curfew times, caseworkers who accompany adults to job interviews and go with them to inspect at least two potential apartments each week.

It's a life so regimented that, for some families, it becomes the catalyst to leave shelters and become self-sufficient. Hess said some make the leap within weeks.

Too little affordable housing

Advocates for the homeless say Bloomberg's plan may get the numbers down but will also doom some homeless people to failure and a return to the streets.

The real problem, they say, is a lack of affordable housing for the working poor, an obstacle that Hess' agency cannot overcome.

"I think the short-term, relatively modest subsidies are not really cutting it," said Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the New York Coalition for the Homeless.

Though crediting Bloomberg and Hess for a commitment to reducing homelessness, Brosnahan said the number of homeless families in shelters had continued to rise.

According to a study analyzing rental costs around the country, a New York City resident must earn at least $20.56 an hour - nearly triple the minimum wage - to afford a basic efficiency apartment.

For many homeless people who get Social Security disability benefits for mental or physical reasons, that apartment would cost 50 percent more than their average monthly benefit of $690.

There's no getting around New York's cost of living, and Hess concedes that helping homeless families - those facing deep-seated domestic problems and those struggling to cope with the loss of a job or other life crisis - is as big a challenge as helping those who have lived for years on the streets.

"This is one area that we frankly still are struggling with," Hess said. "The actual number of families with children has continued to rise over the last two years. We finally think we're at a point now where we'll get it to begin to turn down."

Bloomberg has launched a Housing First initiative tailored for such families, to quickly get them out of shelters - or help keep them in their homes if an emergency arises.

For families in shelters whose breadwinners are working but do not earn enough to pay rent, the city will pay up to 90 percent of an apartment's fair-market rental for up to two years. Families qualify if they have lived in a shelter at least 90 days and the adult has worked at least 20 hours a week in an "on-the-books" job for at least 30 days.

Participants must do three things: open a checking account and make a $50 minimum monthly payment to their landlord; open a savings account and deposit 10 to 20 percent of rent; and try to increase work hours and income.

When the family can make it on its own, the city returns $600 - the rent paid for a year - to put in savings as a "rainy day fund." It also matches whatever else they saved.

"At the end of the year that family could have $5,000 in their savings account," Hess said. "And we think that many families will be OK after a year."

HomeBase assistance

For families on the verge of losing their homes, New York has created HomeBase centers throughout the five boroughs.

HomeBase tries to do whatever is needed - rental aid, social services, moral support - so a family stays where it is and off the streets.

"We really try to develop a relationship with the clients," said Melissa Mowery, a caseworker in a HomeBase center in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of Brooklyn's poorest sections.

Poverty is especially tough on single mothers, Mowery said.

"We'll provide someone a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving if that means they can pay the rent."