The Big Idea: Service Interruption

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Floyd Williams doesn’t look much like a gourmet chef. The 52-year-old has sharp cheekbones and a concave smile, physical remnants of a long-term heroin habit. But on this particular Thursday, he’s the consummate professional: frying calamari rings and simmering scallops in a creamy butter sauce.

Williams has spent the past seven weeks in the Culinary Arts Training Program, a cooking boot camp run by Project Renewal in the basement of its East 3rd Street shelter. It took a brush with prison to get Williams into the program, but now, he says, “I’m in it for the long haul.” He’s not the only one: Culinary Arts has enrolled 885 formerly homeless students over the past six and a half years, placing half of them in steady jobs.

Despite its apparent success, however, the program’s days are numbered. It is one of 57 New York City homeless programs slated to shut down when their contracts expire in 2004 and 2005. The list, which includes drug treatment, transportation, mental health care, and outreach, reflects years of hard work by agencies like Project Renewal that specialize in serving homeless people. And their shaky future reveals a major federal shift in thinking about homelessness itself.

For years, these programs have been funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the nation’s billion-dollar homelessness budget. But now HUD is shifting gears. Rather than spend the bulk of its funding on homeless services, the Bush administration wants the agency to concentrate first and foremost on creating permanent housing. This way, the thinking goes, it can move habitual shelter-dwellers into housing and open up emergency beds for newcomers.

The feds have made clear they want the funds to build more “supportive” housing–linked up with on-site extras like meals and case management. Yet by pushing cities to focus on bricks and mortar, they put freestanding homeless programs, those not limited to residents of a particular housing facility, at risk. “Intuitively, people support the idea that HUD should provide housing; that’s not the issue,” says Brad Paul, housing policy director for the National Coalition on Homelessness, a D.C.-based advocacy group. “But the question is, who’s going to fund services? Where’s the money going to come from?”

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Traditionally, the responsibility has been shared. Since 1987, when Congress passed the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, named for its chief sponsor, Connecticut Republican Rep. Stewart McKinney, a host of federal agencies have teamed up to tackle homelessness. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, offers food stamps; the Department of Health and Human Services provides medical and mental health care. And HUD manages the largest chunk: A host of emergency shelter and housing programs that now total over $1.2 billion per year. That money trickles down to local “Continuum of Care” planning boards that apply for the federal funding each year–and decide how their cities spend it.

But local boards don’t have total control. In 1999, after years of throwing millions of dollars down the emergency services well, frustrated pols led by New York Republican Rep. Rick Lazio’s housing committee mandated that cities spend at least 30 percent of their McKinney funds on permanent housing.

Now the Bush administration has taken that shift a step further, arguing that many homeless services could be subsumed under existing programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid. Rather than creating a new job-training program for homeless people, for example, a city could refer them to one already funded by the U.S. Department of Labor or the Workforce Investment Act. To help grease the wheels, Bush revitalized the Interagency Coalition on Homelessness, a relic from the McKinney Act, and appointed Philip Mangano as its executive director.

The administration found an eloquent and persuasive spokesperson in Mangano. As former president of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, a coalition of 75 agencies, he has enough grassroots credibility to push an efficiency agenda without sounding coldhearted. “When you ask people what they want, invariably they say, ‘I want a place to live,'” he explains. “Any results-based strategy has to start there.”

That’s why the administration has chosen to address the housing problem first, with a plan to eliminate “chronic homelessness” in 10 years. The concept, inspired in large part by the research of academics Dennis Culhane and Marty Burt, uses a business model to understand homelessness–one that keeps a close eye on the bottom line. In a pivotal 1998 study, Culhane and colleague Randall Kuhn found that while 90 percent of homeless people in New York and Philadelphia used emergency shelters rarely or episodically, the other 10 percent had come to rely on them as homes, occupying half of shelter beds on any given night. By finding permanent housing for these chronically homeless, Mangano reasons, you not only make the “customer” happy, but also free up resources for those who need them more.

“This makes sense on a moral, spiritual and policy level,” he says. “And it’s economically sound.”

For Maureen Friar, executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, all this is exactly the kick in the pants needed to end homelessness. Rather than “continuing the continuum continuously,” she says, the shift toward permanent housing “forces people to think about what is the best investment of HUD dollars. It forces groups to work more efficiently.”

New York, she points out, is already ahead of the curve. Because the city’s “right to shelter” consent decree requires a bed for anybody who needs one, New York has developed a strong network of emergency services and is therefore less reliant than other cities on McKinney money to cover the cost of beds. In fact, McKinney funds make up only about 10 percent of the $600 million a year the city spends on homelessness. Los Angeles, by comparison, spends only $70 million total, federal and local money combined.

So while other cities have struggled to make sure that 30 percent of their McKinney funds were spent on permanent housing, New York has already surpassed 40 percent, according to the Department of Homeless Services, and helped pioneer the supportive housing model.

But now Washington wants to see more. HUD built incentives into this year’s McKinney application to entice cities to spend that money on housing and refer homeless people to mainstream services. “The feds made it overtly clear that they expect localities to pick up services dollars,” says Andrew Coamey, co-chair of the policy committee of New York’s Coalition on the Continuum of Care, which prepares the city’s annual application. “We’re stuck in the middle.”

Given the large number of contracts that come up for renewal each year, the coalition had an impossible choice: Cut programs to finance more housing or risk losing out on new federal money in a city where homelessness has hit record highs. The 57 services-only contracts, already viewed unfavorably by HUD, were the obvious sacrifice.

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Well, obvious to some. Those who run the threatened programs say their tailored approach can’t necessarily be duplicated by mainstream agencies. “I think it’s terrible,” says Tori Lyon, associate executive director of the Jericho Project, a local service provider that stands to lose a computer lab in its Harlem housing site. “A homeless person with a disability requires a lot of support services. If you look at the goals of supportive housing, the services are what enable them [to stay out of the shelters].”

Mangano says he has no intention of forgetting about services. Already, he says, the president’s Interagency Council has gotten the Department of Health and Human Services and the Veterans Administration to pitch in and fund a $65 million, three-year pilot housing and services program targeting chronic homelessness.

But local advocates say the cooperation Mangano envisions at the city and state level simply doesn’t exist. At a meeting designed to address the service contract cuts last November, the city Human Resources Administration and its subsidiary HIV/AIDS Services Administration didn’t even send representatives, says Coamey. And those who did come weren’t much help. “All we heard was, ‘Our budgets are being cut, too,'” he complains. “Nobody was jumping up to offer any dollars.”

The idea of focusing resources on chronic homeless people also has its critics. “Of course we think that population should be targeted,” says Jeremy Rosen, staff attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “But we also think that the other 90 percent of homeless people–those who are living doubled up, people who aren’t on the streets and visible–that population is important, too.”

In a July 21 letter to Mangano, 26 homeless advocacy groups challenged the administration to take a wider view. “We have witnessed growth in the scale and severity of homelessness among families with children, unaccompanied youth, and other populations who do not fit neatly into the ‘chronic homeless’ paradigm,” they wrote. “Current federal mandates are forcing our communities to overlook these gaps and needs in favor of a narrowly constructed national priority.”

Mangano shot back his own seven-page letter. “To imply or indicate that the chronic homelessness initiative is responsible for so many policy misdirections, most existing long before its inception, overstates reality and undermines substantive dialogue,” he wrote.

His harshest critics remain unmoved. If Washington really wants to solve homelessness, they ask, why did the White House propose cutting an estimated 100,000 Section 8 vouchers this year, a move that could easily push thousands of people at the bottom of the housing ladder off their rung? And if it values a full range of services, why would it let programs like Culinary Arts slip through the cracks?

“It’s pretty disingenuous for this administration to say that they’re pushing supportive housing,” Paul charges. “Where does [that housing] come from, and at what cost?”