A “Cure” for the Homeless

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The pocket of Susan Nayowith’s khaki pants bulges with a beeper as she weaves through the hallways of the Park Avenue Armory Women’s Shelter at 67th Street. Three months after her nonprofit group, the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, won a city contract to manage the 100-bed shelter, she is supervising a renovation that leaves its mark everywhere: cluttered floors stacked with window frames waiting to be stripped of lead; crated washing machines and dryers that will replace broken or obsolete equipment; folded metal cots to be discarded; tangled telephone wiring, like spaghetti on a platter, that will network 34 phones. Meanwhile, the women who live here are ever present, sitting in the halls reading, playing solitaire or huddling alone in a corner.

Although homeless shelters are intended to be a temporary refuge for people without housing, 69 of Park Avenue’s 100 residents have been in the shelter system for two years or more. Many of them have a history of mental illness and 28 of them have depended on the city for shelter for more than 10 years apiece.

These women are at the center of a fundamental change in New York City’s shelter system for single, homeless adults. The city is privatizing the public shelters, shifting them over from a large city-run bureaucracy to a network operated by more than a dozen nonprofit organizations.

“Before, we were focusing on keeping everybody sheltered,” says Susan Wiviott, spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). “But shelters are not meant to be permanent places where people stay. Our intention is to create more flexible programs to help people leave the system.”

There’s no denying that the change is working to the benefit of the longtime residents of the Park Avenue Armory. In the months since Lenox Hill took over the armory shelter and began to focus on the health and housing needs of its residents, they have placed eight women in community-based housing and 11 others in hospitals where they are receiving treatment for medical or psychiatric illnesses. Three others have been placed with their families.

As privatization proceeds, the city and the nonprofits are transforming the shelters into programs designed to rehabilitate homeless people rather than simply provide three meals and a bed. In this way, DHS has mandated that most homeless men and women are served by staff trained to treat mental illness or substance abuse, or to provide job training and employment readiness. For people who need this kind of help, such support programs can work well.

Yet recent research shows that most of the 25,000 single adults who come through the shelter system in any given year are nothing like the long-term residents of Park Avenue. While a small minority of homeless men and women have become chronic inhabitants of the system, the city’s own data show that the huge majority of people–about 80 percent of those using the shelters over the course of a year–are homeless for only a short time. The data indicate that most of these short-term shelter users need only a bed, a phone and a place to shower for a couple of months before returning to independent living.

“These are people who are less likely to have mental health, substance abuse or medical problems,” explains Dennis Culhane, a professor of social work at the University of Pennsylvania, who compiled city data for a comprehensive study of shelter users published last spring by the Federal National Mortgage Association.

The city, however, is building the future of the shelter system on a very different foundation. This year, officials plan to contract out management of the city’s largest general-population shelter–the 1,000-bed Camp LaGuardia 90 miles north of the city–and turn it into a program shelter providing mental health services, treatment for alcohol and substance abuse, and vocational training. Once the shelter is converted, at least 70 percent of the city’s 7,200 shelter beds for single people will have become specialized programs.

And many people close to the system worry about the long-term consequences of the move. Some fear that lurking behind the city’s claims of fiscal prudence is a veiled effort to dismantle government social service agencies. “The city’s move to privatize is primarily a cost-saving measure no different than a measure to dismantle the Department of Sanitation,” charges George Silverman, delegate to the Social Services Employees Union and director of social services at the city’s 30th Street Shelter.

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At Park Avenue, it has proven a struggle to move some of the women into homes of their own. “A lot of people consider this home,” says Executive Director Nancy Wackstein, who headed the Dinkins administration’s Office on Homelessness before she left city government five years ago.

“I’m happy here,” agrees Helen Rosenbaum, who calls herself a “senior citizen” and describes the armory as the best place she’s lived in the 10 years she’s been homeless. “I’ve found a lot of security living in a shelter.” Rosenbaum has a regular cot when she wants to lie down, unlike the times when she used to stretch her own coat over the chairs at the Moravian Coffee Pot, a drop-in center where she slept when she first became homeless in the mid-1980s. At the Park Avenue Armory, she says, she likes the food and the staff and she can even save a little money.

These days, the shelter seems more like a community center than a shelter. On one busy afternoon a group of residents prepares to go on a field trip, while Olivia G., 52, finds a chair in the hall and sits back to read a book. A few others regroup for Tuesday’s bingo. And Rita J., 45, remains seated in the cafeteria lingering over today’s lunch: a bologna and cheese sandwich, beets, coleslaw and cranberry juice.

Conditions weren’t always so pleasant here. Residents say that when the city ran the shelter, before Lenox Hill Neighborhood House arrived last April, the food was bad and the portions inadequate. Carolyn Rodgers, a resident for nearly two years, describes dark hallways, soot-encrusted floors and moldy, rusted showers. But, she says, the worst problem was the guards.

Rodgers and other clients say the guards withheld food and packages they were supposed to deliver, and turned up their radios and walkie-talkies late at night, disturbing women in the 80-bed dormitory. Under the city’s regime, the guards became a metaphor for the shelter’s problems. They were impersonal platoons of employees paid to maintain order, and many treated homeless people shabbily. Soon after taking over, Lenox Hill replaced the guards and began using social workers to resolve most fights and other crises. Other nonprofits who have taken control of formerly city-run shelters have done the same.

Still, no matter how they improve the surroundings or how dedicated or professional the staff, the major challenge for nonprofits is to move clients out of the homeless shelters and into appropriate permanent housing, which costs about one-half to two-thirds less than the $20,000-per-person estimated annual expense of a shelter bed.

One of the more successful records of moving people into permanent housing belongs to a program run by the Center for Urban Community Services (CUCS). Joe DeGenova manages a shelter for mentally ill women at 350 Lafayette Street in Manhattan, a squat city-owned building with 40 beds, offices, shared common rooms and a rooftop garden.

Last year, the shelter placed 70 women into permanent apartments in less than six months. Part of their success depends on a high staff-to-resident ratio–including one staff member who is a dedicated housing sleuth and accompanies each client until she finds an apartment.

But there’s another reason CUCS has been so successful. Thanks to federal and state funding, there are many newly built and renovated apartment buildings offering permanent, supported living arrangements for mentally and physically disabled men and women. For those who are diagnosed with such a disability, finding an appropriate home is usually possible, despite deep cuts in other subsidies for most low-income housing.

The solution is not nearly so clear for most homeless men and women. Not only is subsidized housing out of reach, even a bed in a non-specialized, general population shelter is becoming harder to find.

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Throughout the system, specialization has become as much of a mantra as privatization.

By January 1998, when DHS expects to turn Camp LaGuardia over to a yet-to-be-chosen nonprofit, 33 of the city’s 39 shelters will be run as therapeutic programs of one sort or another. That’s a total of 5,039 beds.

For example, 350 Lafayette, Park Avenue and the Park Slope Armory are all now shelters for women with histories of mental illness. The Third Avenue shelter, DOE Fund’s Harlem-1 shelter and Pomoja House, in Brooklyn, are among those that focus on vocational training. Fort Washington Armory houses men with a history of mental illness.

For those who need very specific sorts of help, then, the shelter programs are improving. This is especially true for homeless women, whom researchers say are more likely than their male counterparts to suffer from some form of mental or physical disability.

But what about the thousands of men and women who come to the shelters seeking nothing more than a dry place to lay their head?

In fact, according to the city’s own data, four out of five single men and women who enter the shelters remain there for only one or two short stays within a three-year period, for a total of no more than two months. After that, they leave for good.

By looking at computerized city shelter registries, Culhane and his colleague Randall Kuhn tracked every individual who entered the system during a three-year period, and concluded that 80 percent of the people using the system are not chronic residents of the shelters, nor are they so severely disabled that they can’t find more stable alternatives on their own after a short stay in the city’s system (see City Limits, January 1996). In other words, most people use the shelters for very short stays. Culhane argues that the data strongly imply that the shelters are providing a desperately needed resource for New Yorkers trying to cope with immediate crises, such as an eviction, an illness, a divorce or the loss of a job.

Some of the nonprofit managers involved in the changeover agree there’s a problem. “What does the city do with people who don’t fit into the community-based services?” asks Susan Nayowith, even as she maneuvers through the transition at the Park Avenue shelter.

“You can’t mandate involvement,” says Tony Hannigan, executive director of CUCS. “The solution is not to exclude them from the shelter system.”

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At two recently privatized shelters, men reported they risked losing their bed when they refused to give up their outside jobs or take part in nonprofit-run programs.

At Pomoja House, a shelter on Brooklyn’s Sumner Avenue managed by the Black Veterans for Social Justice and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Conference, men were transferred out to Camp LaGuardia after they failed to comply with the shelter’s curfew or participate in its work program, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. The coalition charges that these men were employed on their own and were working the evening and night shifts, so they couldn’t get back in time for curfew.

Pomoja officials say the coalition’s claims about the work program are untrue. But they do say men who miss curfew can be asked to leave. And the same is true at other shelters.

“Transfers because of noncompliance with a shelter’s program are a reality,” says Carl Billington, DHS regional director. “You can’t coddle people in programs. There are set rules they have to comply with. It’s not magical to turn your life around.”

George McDonald, the director of the DOE Fund, which took over management of the Harlem-1 shelter last May and established its own vocational program there, is forthright about shelter residents’ obligation to take part. “People who don’t want to join the program can go to another shelter,” he says.

Residents credit the organization with cleaning, painting and renovating the building. The DOE Fund receives $2.6 million to manage the 198-bed shelter, and it won additional money from the federal government to pay stipends to shelter residents in the vocational program, called “Ready, Willing and Able.”

McDonald says he plans to have every bed in the shelter occupied by participants in the program. And that worries some of his clients.

“This used to be a working man’s shelter and the residents knew the value of a day’s work,” says Anthony Miller, 34, a member of Harlem-1’s Client Advisory Board. Indeed, many of the men have had jobs on loading docks, in kitchens, hospitals or construction crews. For them, the opportunity to join DOE’s $5 or $6-an-hour job-training program learning to sweep streets or clean bathrooms, is not necessarily worthwhile, Miller says, though he decided to sign up anyway. Some of the other residents, most of whom asked that their names not be used, complain that the six-to-nine-month training program can be an unnecessary delay on their road to independence. They say their time would be better spent finding an apartment.

“When you say, ‘I’ve been working for the DOE Fund sweeping the streets,’ what kind of a skill is there to pushing a broom or a mop?” asks Terrance Smith, 33, who tells of losing his Queens apartment after being laid off from a security guard job. Smith says he clocked 90 days in the “Ready, Willing and Able” program before withdrawing.

Debra Carfora, director of Harlem-1, explains that the main focus of the program is to promote workforce discipline. “To get up the same time each day, not to curse a supervisor, to work with others in a team. It gives them a marketable attitude more than marketable skills,” she says.

Besides, she adds, DOE pays the men–and many of the shelter residents are happy about that. For instance, James Wilson returns from school in the evening and works as crew chief on DOE’s evening shift. For $6 an hour, he cleans Harlem-1’s floors, hallways, urinals, toilets, sinks, showers and bathroom floors in evening hours. He’s delighted to pocket $80 a week from his $175 stipend, after DOE collects $65 for rent and puts $30 in a bank account for him to withdraw when he moves out to his own apartment. If he stays for nine months, DOE will match his savings with $1,000.

Yet the fact that a nonprofit operator can pressure a non-participating resident to leave a shelter puts a strain on the whole system, saddling the declining number of non-program shelters–which should be beds reserved for short-termers–with difficult cases. “Recalcitrants stay in the city-run shelters,” explains Ed Geffner of Project Renewal. “The city can’t [legally] send people out if they don’t comply. The privates can.”

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The city’s policy of contracting with non-profits for specialized homeless services actually dates to the late 1960s, when groups like Manhattan Bowery Corporation operated a detox unit in a city men’s shelter on East Third Street. During the Koch administration, nonprofit groups began to run city-funded substance abuse and transitional housing programs for homeless people, but–with the exception of Ward’s Island Shelter, managed by the Volunteers of America since 1979–most nonprofits only supplemented services provided by the city’s Human Resources Administration and the Department of Mental Health.

The concept of nonprofit shelter management got a big boost in 1991 from recommendations of the Cuomo Commission, chaired by the governor’s son, Andrew. The commission’s report has largely guided DHS policy in recent years, even as the agency sheds staff through buy-outs and transfers, and cuts services at a rapid pace. The Cuomo Commission recommended extensive privatization and specialization of the shelter system, based on the theory that the majority of shelter residents were either mentally ill or substance abusers or both.

“The [future of the shelter system] is being written with a specialized, treatment-oriented rehabilitative agenda,” says anthropologist Kostas Gounis, a longtime researcher of homelessness who is now working on a city-funded mental health research project at Bellevue Hospital.

And the biggest single step in the privatization process is slated to begin next year, when the city chooses contractors to take control of Camp LaGuardia, transforming it from “a general-purpose shelter into one offering a comprehensive array of specialized programs addressing the underlying causes of homelessness.” The city’s Request for Proposals says that after assessment, current residents will be moved into “appropriate specialized service programs.”

Sixteen months before DHS issued its formal announcement last July to privatize the 1,000-bed shelter, 23 nonprofit social service groups had participated in discussions about the plan. Now some of them are bidding on the contract, which will amount to more than $81 million over five years. The schedule to contract out the shelter by January 1998 has apparently been complicated because the camp needs extensive repairs–and some groups may be hesitant to step into what is currently a tumultuous relationship between the shelter and its neighboring community of Chester, New York.

Meanwhile, permanent housing resources are disappearing. Last year, the city was able to provide apartments to nearly 1,400 homeless men and women in federally sponsored single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels, public housing developments, senior housing or other rent subsidy programs, such as Section 8. Though there is no indication that the need for housing is decreasing, DHS expects to find apartments or subsidies for only 760 single homeless people this year. Only one new SRO with supportive services is slated to come on-line in 1997, and for the first time in two decades, the federal government is providing no new Section 8 rent supports for the needy.

For a shelter system operating at 96 percent capacity–even on warm nights–there’s little likelihood of relief. some advocates fear the number of homeless people on the city’s streets could return to the high levels of the early 1990s.

“The city managed to keep the housing programs going [last year] despite declining federal support,” says Rosanne Haggerty, executive director of Common Ground, which develops SRO housing. Now that the federal support is drying up, “Disaster looms,” says Haggerty.

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Although DHS maintains the city’s larger financial crisis is not the motive for privatization, officials say that over the next three years the city will save nearly $11 million from the cost of running the 737 beds that were turned over to nonprofit groups last spring. These figures, however, are disputed by John Talbutt, assistant to the president of the Social Services Employees Union, Local 371 of AFSCME. He says the budgeted amounts for city shelter operations are often far larger than the dollars actually spent, because the shelters are rarely at full staffing levels. AFSCME has been hurt by the privatization process: District Council 37 says it will lose 114 jobs when Camp LaGuardia is contracted out. (In fact, Local 371 has competed with nonprofits for seven of the shelter management deals, and won the contract to run the Lexington Avenue women’s shelter.)

For years, social service providers, city workers and anti-homelessness activists have watched hundreds of men and women languish in shelters which, for some, had become little more than alternatives to mental hospitals. These were the chronics, the men and women who couldn’t be made to move on. And because they were always there, everyone got the impression that most homeless people were like this–even as a far larger number moved in and out of the system at a rapid pace.

Few advocates are ready to criticize the move toward specialization, if only because it is finally providing much needed services to those chronic, long-term shelter residents.

Gordon Campbell, the DHS commissioner, has refused repeated requests for an interview since his appointment was announced last June. But before she resigned to head up the nonprofit Bowery Residents Committee Inc., former commissioner Joan Malin said that the privatization of the shelter system was her proudest accomplishment. For the chronic shelter residents that need intensive services, the results are already paying off at places like the Park Avenue Armory.

It is too soon to know how effective the new system will be. “Nonprofits can act faster and with greater sensitivity,” says Doug Lasdon, director of the Urban Justice Center, an advocacy and organizing group for low-income and homeless people. “But they need strong oversight and clear standards.” Meanwhile, a two-tiered system is emerging. One rewards the client who embraces the program. The other is layered with people who don’t fit the service model–but who nevertheless need a bed and a roof over their head.

Phyllis Vine has written extensively about mental health issues.