HESS VS. HOMELESSNESS:
CHAT WITH DHS COMMISH

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This April, Robert Hess was appointed as the new commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services, replacing Linda Gibbs, who moved into the position of Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services. Hess, 50, brings an impressive résumé with him. As president of the Center for Poverty Solutions, and president and CEO of the Maryland Food Committee and Action for the Homeless, he was responsible for anti-homelessness initiatives in Baltimore. In his most recent job as Philadelphia’s deputy managing director for special needs housing, he oversaw a 60 percent drop in street homelessness. He will now play a key role in Bloomberg’s administration, which is currently in the third year of a five-year plan to bring down record levels of homelessness in the city by two-thirds. He is married, with two children in their 20’s, and lives in Manhattan.

City Limits: With your work in Baltimore and Philadelphia, what do you bring to addressing homelessness in this city?

Hess: I think what we bring is the ability to continue the great work that Deputy Mayor Gibbs began at DHS. She put together a world-class staff and really made a tremendous amount of progress after a surge of homelessness that occurred at the beginning of the mayor’s first term, based not only on the ability to focus on not just managing a homeless system, but moving toward ending men, women and children experiencing homelessness in this city.

CL: Will addressing New York be any different than addressing Baltimore or Philadelphia?

Hess: New York is a scale—and really a sophistication—of its own. The nonprofit community and providers, here in the city of New York, are very sophisticated. I think more sophisticated than anywhere else in the country. … We’ll take advantage of that. But, the extent that we can steal from other best practices around the country, we’re going to steal them.

CL: In 2004, when Bloomberg began his program to end chronic homelessness by two-thirds within five years, there were about 37,000 New Yorkers without a home. Since then, it has dropped by only 5,000 to 32,000. Is the goal of cutting homelessness by two-thirds by 2009 possible?

Hess: Absolutely.

CL: How would that be possible?

Hess: It starts with the political will. The political will of this mayor is really extraordinary. … He really wants everyone in this city to have a place to call home. Whether it’s the 12,000 units that are … coming alive slowly over New York/New York III. … Whether it’s our Housing Stability Plus program that has now housed over 7,000 individuals or families over the last 18 months or so. … Between the outreach on the street, prevention and diversion, minimizing shelter stays, giving more intensive support, moving people faster into permanent housing with whatever support they need, I know we’ll get it done.

CL: The most notable part of the mayor’s speech to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (at its annual conference, July 17) in Washington was the new focus on cutting the street homeless population. How were the 73 encampments mentioned in the speech found, and what needs to be done to get these emptied and the street population off the streets?

Hess: The 73 locations were identified by our outreach teams all across the boroughs. The mayor, I thought courageously, challenges us to not do what you generally do within these kinds of public programs, which is look for the low-hanging group. You don’t get to the hardest to serve. …In fact, one of the deputy commissioners, Mark Hurwitz, and I were out last week and actually transported someone from the notorious Bat Cave, who had been on the streets over seven years, into a shelter with detox at his request. Do people want to come off the streets? Yes. Are we targeting the hardest to serve? Yes. Are we going to force people out-of-sight and out-of-view? As some folks have already suggested, absolutely not. …But, we also want to recognize that people living in some of these incredibly unhealthy, unsafe environments is just not acceptable either. We could do better than that as a city and we’re going to.

CL: Will the city commit supportive units to this street population or will they just be moved to shelters?

Hess: This is not a “one size fits all” business on any front and certainly not for people living on our streets. There will be a combination of resources made available — everything from shelter to some safe haven type arrangements to supportive housing to Housing First. There’ll be a variety of opportunities available for people that are currently living on our streets and we’ll do everything we can to help them take advantage of those opportunities.

CL: Some advocates question the Housing Stability Plus program because of its yearly 20 percent cuts in rent subsidies and rules not allowing participants to take better paying jobs. What’s your response to that?

Hess: The Housing Stability Plus program is the most generous local subsidized housing program in the nation. It has, as I’ve mentioned before, actually led 7,000 individuals and families into permanent housing. Like any other new program we’re going to be monitoring it closely. If it needs to be massaged a little bit as we go along to maximize success then we’ll try to figure out how to do that. All that said, I think the mayor’s premise and our premise with HSP is to allow people an opportunity to receive a full subsidy for a period of time, to be able to figure out how to increase their income or ability to pay rent over time and have some reductions in subsidy.

CL: Are there any plans to expand the HomeBase program, which has received accolades on a national scale?

Hess: There will be expansion. Part of that $10 million that the mayor talked about for aftercare will likely go as an expansion to some of the existing HomeBase programs. Yes, there will be some of that. There probably will be more down the road as we continue to document the success of the HomeBase program. Anytime that you have a program that just in its first 18 months becomes a finalist in the [Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s national award process], you’ve got to be proud of those early results. We’ll continue to monitor and we’ll continue to vigorously evaluate it. To the extent that it continues to show great results, we’ll continue to make some additional investments.

CL: Some advocates have questioned how the city comes up with its statistics, particularly concerning the street population. Is there weight to that particular criticism?

Hess: If you look around the country what you’ll see is that there is no more sophisticated system for doing street counts than exist here in New York City. … Is it exact? No. Can we use it to identify trends? Absolutely, yes. Is it the most sophisticated system in the country? Yes. It’s not perfect and if people want to hold us up to a perfect standard, then I guess that’s what they’ll do. To the extent that we can continue to refine it and improve it, we will.

CL: How will you be working with the advocate community in this city?

Hess: We’ve met with so many groups in the last few months. We want to work with anybody and everybody in the city that really wants to end the experience of homelessness for men, women and children of the city.

CL: So, how did you get interested in fighting homelessness?

Hess: Many years ago, I was in Baltimore running business operations for Disabled American Veterans and one day got a call from the chair of the board asking me to look into the issue of homeless veterans. … What I found was just life-changing for me. At the time in Baltimore, there were a thousand veterans that were on the streets. Seemed just like failed public policy to me. … That put me on a course to try to change public policy in this country on how we deliver services to people that are experiencing homelessness and how to do things a little differently. … I went from doing that, to here in New York today. We’re going to keep that work up until it’s done. In New York, for this administration, that means another three and a half years to move toward the mayor’s vision of reducing the number of people on our streets and the number of people in our shelter system by two-thirds or more over that period of time. We’re going to work every day to do our best to make that happen.

– Tanveer Ali