Cash to Cras

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Faced with a severe shortage of shelter beds for homeless families, and forced by court order to keep a record number of families housed in decent accommodations, the Giuliani administration in late December was considering writing out checks to families that agree to move out of their shelter spaces for a while to let new clients move into the system.

According to a draft proposal obtained by City Limits, the city Department of Homeless Services is thinking about paying participants in a new furlough program $500 if they spend two consecutive weeks outside of the shelter system. For an absence of five weeks they would get $1,000 and for a maximum of eight, $1,500. A family would be eligible if it has spent at least 10 months in the city shelter system and can provide an alternate address to which their checks can be sent. If at any time during or at the end of its two-month peregrination, a family decided to seek housing via the city’s Emergency Assistance Unit–the first stop in a homeless family’s search for shelter–it would be spared another eligibility investigation and go back on the waitlist for space in a Tier II shelter, hotel or scatter-site apartment.

As of two weeks before the New Year, the city had yet to decide when and if it will implement the proposal, according to Robert Mascali, acting first deputy commissioner of homeless services. Many shelter managers and advocates hope the decision is never.

“Paying people to go away for a couple of weeks does not address the underlying problem of a lack of affordable housing,” says Steve Banks, an attorney for Legal Aid in its years-long court battle to keep kids and their parents from sleeping on the floor of the EAU or shuttling from temporary shelter to shelter. According to Legal Aid, at least 1,600 families were sent to temporary shelters in April, 238 of them for a week or more. That same month, State Supreme Court Judge Helen Freedman threatened to hold the city in contempt of court unless it located close to 500 new apartments for homeless people. Mascali says the city has added 1,200 slots for families in the shelter system over the last year, but Banks claims that despite this, a few families have been left overnight at the EAU since September 11.

Citing numerous concerns about uprooting children from their schools, enticing domestic violence victims to go back out on their own and encouraging families to crowd in with friends and relatives, an alliance of family shelters has presented DHS with a counterproposal. “The city’s program would have people doubling up,” says Fred Shack, president of the Tier II Coalition of family shelter providers. Instead, he says, the city should use those funds to help pay rent for families who have qualified for permanent apartments, but thanks to bureaucratic tie-ups at the Human Resources Administration–a common occurrence–have difficulty obtaining the cash they need to move in. “Clients have lost apartments because landlords were not willing to wait,” says Shack.

Whatever form this program takes, given its failures in recent years to produce or locate sufficient housing for the homeless, the city could once again find itself in front of a judge. “The city would be wise to not implement this without further review by the courts,” says Banks.