Prevention or PR?

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The New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has redefined its mission over the last two years from merely providing emergency shelter to actively preventing homelessness. Yet the agency’s budget plan for next year has advocates questioning the city’s commitment to prevention.

In 2003, DHS gained control of the city’s legal services contracts–designed to help tenants avoid eviction–and assured advocates that the programs would be funded. But when the mayor’s executive budget was released in April, the contracts, worth over $5 million, were missing.

“I feel hoodwinked,” says Councilmember Gale Brewer. “I was under the impression there was an agreement, and that everything put into [DHS Commissioner] Linda Gibbs’ shop would be line-itemed. I was shocked when it wasn’t.”

DHS spokesperson Jim Anderson says no such agreement had been made. “The only deal was that we would strengthen and advance the city’s homeless prevention efforts,” he says. “The programs in question are council programs that the council historically funds on an annual basis. We absolutely hope the council continues to support these critical programs.”

Meanwhile, Anderson notes, the executive budget includes nearly $20 million for other DHS prevention efforts including the agency’s New Household Stability Initiative, which targets six neighborhoods with high homeless populations, as well as a study on how to end chronic homelessness.

Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, says those programs, even in combination with prevention services still under the Human Resources Administration, fall short of meeting the city’s need. In February, using figures provided by the Independent Budget Office, the coalition found that spending on homelessness prevention had actually declined under Bloomberg, from $145 million in fiscal year 2001 to $135 million in fiscal year 2003.

“The question is, are homelessness-prevention legal services effective or not?” Markee asks. “The answer is yes, and they are underfunded. It’s really disingenuous for the administration to say that these are effective programs and not baseline them.”

Markee and other advocates for the homeless had hoped to avoid what has become an annual battle. “We get treated the same way every year,” says Andrew Scherer, executive director of Legal Services for New York City. “The contracts aren’t part of the mayor’s budget, and the City Council goes to bat for us to get funding restored.” Already, Legal Aid of New York has announced that it may need to lay off staff due, in part, to these concerns.

“It makes legal services programs much harder to staff and manage,” says Adam Weinstein, director of the Goddard-Riverside West Side SRO Law Project. “I’m always worried about whether we’re going to get funded.”

–Elizabeth Cady Brown