As homelessness continues to rise — 38,254 New Yorkers sought shelter one night in late March — services for families and single adults without a place to live are about to get worse, as are programs which attempt to prevent homelessness.
In his budget proposal, Mayor Bloomberg has called for cutting one-third of the cleaning and maintenance staff — 109 workers — at the city’s 13 shelters. A spokesperson for the city Department of Homeless Services insists the city will continue to maintain services. Many homeless advocates and shelter managers wonder, however, how that will be possible, and what the fallout might be.
“Communities have come to respect and be comfortable with the shelter that is in their local district, but the question is what happens when that level of upkeep is no longer there,” said Lauri Cole, director of the Association of Service Providers for Homeless Adults and the Tier II Coalition.
The mayor is also seeking immediate cuts to the controversial scatter-site housing program. Under Bloomberg’s proposal, payments to landlords who provide apartments to homeless families will drop from an average $95 a night to $81. While many homeless advocates welcome any cut to this program, pointing to its vast expense and shoddy services, DHS spokesperson James Anderson noted, “I hope the landlords don’t call us on Monday and tell us to get our clients out of their buildings.”
Also on the chopping block: All DHS contractors, from medical service providers to the managers of more than 100 adult and family shelters, eight drop-in centers and 74 single-room occupancy hotels, will each lose 1.5 percent of their funding. Agency officials plan to work with shelter operators to make these cuts “in ways that do not impact services to clients.”
Noting that shelters have not seen a rise in operation funds for 12 years, and their employees have not received a cost of living adjustment for five, Cole said, “a cut of .1 percent is going to be more than we can afford.”
And these are just the immediate cuts. If the mayor has to dip into his contingent “doomsday” budget — which he says he will turn to if Albany and the labor unions don’t help with the city’s fiscal crisis — all of the city’s drop-in centers, which shelter about 1,000 people each night, will be eliminated. Twenty-one outreach teams, which in fiscal year 2002 placed nearly 7,000 homeless people in shelters or drop-in centers, would also be cut. The city shelters would lose another 109 janitors, and shelters and hotels would lose another 4.5 percent of their budgets.
Programs for keeping New Yorkers in their homes and out of the shelters also suffer under Bloomberg’s budget. The $2.5 million anti-eviction and SRO legal services programs paid for by the department of Housing Preservation and Development would be eliminated, as would the Community Consultant Contracts, which have helped low-income homeowners and small landlords keep up their properties, and assisted tenants with legal issues. The mayor has also called for cutting funding for housing court information services.
When it comes to the budget cuts proposed for child welfare services, the Bloomberg administration is treading dangerously close to the edge. While no city-employed child protective caseworkers will lose their jobs, proposed changes in contracts with private foster care agencies — and with foster parents themselves — will make it harder for them to keep kids safe.
Previous budget cuts this fall and winter reduced payments to foster care agencies by 5 percent, for a total of $12 million. (Preventive services, aiming to preempt the need for foster care in the first place, are slated for a 16 percent reduction.) Last week, an agency rated highly by the Administration for Children’s Services, Brookwood Child Care, elected to eliminate its foster care program because of financial hardship — and that was before the cuts.
Now the city is about to put even more pressure on the foster care system. Seeking to save an additional $3.4 million, ACS is proposing making 37 percent of its staffing cuts in foster care and preventive services, and eliminating 600 beds in privately operated group homes, out of more than 4,100. Instead, says ACS spokesperson Kathleen Carlson, more adolescents will be placed in private foster homes with families. “The goal here, in addition to the overall cost issues, is to make sure kids are in an environment living with a family,” she said.
Some advocates for children say moving more teens to private homes instead of group facilities won’t be harmful, and could even offer benefits. Teenagers now make up more than half of the kids in foster care, ACS reports, with many already living in private homes. “It’s an approach consistent with trying to serve kids closer to home communities,” said Jennifer March-Joly of the Citizens’ Committee for Children. “It increases the likelihood that families will be reunified and children adopted.”
But it’s not always easy to find neighborhood foster homes willing to take in teens. “A lot of the young people we work with come from private homes already,” noted Denise Hinds, who runs the congregate care program for Good Shepherd Services. Many of the young people in her group homes, she said, have emotional and behavioral problems too hard to handle in a home setting. “I don’t think there are tons of foster parents out there jumping to work with troubled adolescents. Usually, foster parents want babies.”