DHS SENDS S.O.S. TO NONPROFITS

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The city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) announced last week that it wants to replace the Emergency Assistance Unit, the intake center for homeless families, with smaller, nonprofit community-based centers. This move is the latest in the department’s decade-long effort to decentralize its operations by contracting out homeless services to local providers. But it also raises a serious question: Can nonprofits do a better job?

Ever since DHS was established in 1993, it has struggled to cope with growing homelessness and a shrinking pool of affordable housing. With the number of homeless in New York City now at an all-time high, it is not surprising that the administration is contemplating big changes.

Since the end of last year, DHS has issued at least three major requests for proposals asking community-based organizations (CBOs) to enter new service areas and take more control over others. Only seven of the city’s 56 adult shelters are currently run by the city, and the agency is now taking applications from nonprofits to operate four of its largest remaining shelters, a total of more than 1,200 beds. Another request, put out at the end of December, calls for CBOs to develop transitional residences and drop-in centers citywide. And a third offered $2 million contracts for preventive services, such as family counseling and tenant mediation, in six neighborhoods.

DHS spokesperson Jim Anderson said the preventive services contracts reflect the city’s continuing effort “to move away from large, city-operated sites to smaller facilities that benefit from the knowledge and expertise of nonprofits.”

Many homeless advocates and service providers, like Nancy Biberman, president of the Women’s Housing & Economic Development Corporation, applaud the move. “Because we are located within communities, we know what is out there and can help, depending on the particular issues of a family,” she said.

Clients also report getting more respectful treatment from privately run groups. “We hear time and time again from clients that when they come into shelters run by the city, they are treated with indifference at best and abuse at worst,” said the director of Coalition for the Homeless, Mary Brosnahan-Sullivan. “It is better to have a group delivering humane service be the first point of contact.”

At the same time, some providers caution, there are limits to the role nonprofits can effectively play. It’s one thing for CBOs to be on the frontline of providing social services, and another for them to be on the hook for providing emergency housing. “I don’t think that CBOs can do what the EAU does,” said Biberman. “The provision of shelter is the government’s responsibility as enshrined in the law. Unless they give us a sizable number of empty buildings sufficient to meet the demand, I don’t see how they can delegate that responsibility.”

Some service providers are concerned that by asking CBOs to determine who gets shelter placements, rental assistance or even Section 8 vouchers—all things now done by the EAU—the homeless service system could suffer.

“First, I don’t know how you would ensure any consistency,” said one provider, speaking on condition of anonymity. If the city uses performance-based evaluations to determine who gets contracts, the provider added, CBOs might feel pressure to focus more on outcome statistics and less on their clients.

The city’s social service workers union, Local 371, has a different reason to worry. It has 164 members at the four adult shelters out to bid right now and could lose hundreds more jobs if the pace of outsourcing continues. “Further privatization does present a real problem for our membership,” said John Talbutt, assistant to the president of Local 371. “DHS is cutting to the bone.”