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A comprehensive program designed to get homeless families out of New York City shelters and living on their own through rental assistance, job training, financial planning – and ultimately work and saving money – was officially unveiled by the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) last week.

In a dramatic shift, the new plan, called Work Advantage, reduces the length of time the city will subsidize rent for a homeless person or family to two years, down from five. It relies on a city-matched savings account and homelessness prevention services after the subsidies run out to keep people from transitioning out of the shelters, into “permanent housing,” then back to the shelter again.

Work Advantage will replace Housing Stability Plus (HSP), the agency’s two-year-old homeless housing assistance program, DHS Commissioner Robert Hess announced last week – when there were more than 35,100 people living in New York City shelters, including more than 14,400 children from a record high number of 9,240 families.

Advocates for the homeless, who have been sharply critical of HSP, wasted no time in faulting the new plan as well.

“Both programs are built on a faulty assumption the Bloomberg administration has about homelessness,” said Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless. “The core of the misguided thinking is that this is a welfare problem and not a housing problem. These families are not homeless because they don’t work enough or they’re not willing to work, it’s because there is a lack of affordable housing.”

Markee said the emphasis DHS is putting on self-sufficiency through job training, work and savings under the Work Advantage program shows a stronger commitment by the administration to the faulty logic that what homeless families need are greater incentives to work and save, not affordable housing.

Criticism of HSP peaked earlier this year as homeless organizations released various studies and reports that included harsh judgments about how poorly the program was being run. Work Advantage was created in response to those critiques and is an effort to eliminate the “unintended consequences” of Housing Stability Plus, Hess said. For example, some families were forced off the program when they started earning too much money and some landlords left the program after the first year because they weren’t being paid.

Work Advantage has been offered to about 2,000 individuals and families thus far, including many who were not eligible for the old program; another 6,000 currently receiving HSP benefits also can switch to the new plan. Hess said Work Advantage would probably be slightly more expensive than Housing Stability Plus in the first few years, but will be cheaper in the long run since it cuts off after two years instead of five.

But Hess said the new program wasn’t designed to be cheaper, just more effective. “The people who are benefiting from HSP need a leg up, not a handout,” Hess said, pointing out that HSP doesn’t provide job training, financial planning and assistance or aftercare – which are all components of Work Advantage aimed at keeping DHS clients from returning to the shelters.

Work Advantage will provide a rent subsidy, ranging from up to $849 a month for a single person to as much as $1,304 for a family of seven or eight, for up to two years, and recipients will be required to work, save money and pay $50 a month out of their own pockets toward rent. Unlike HSP, the new program does not require participants to receive public assistance to be eligible.

The program “rewards clients for working and saving money rather than penalizing them by taking away their rental assistance for working,” Hess said in a statement issued Wednesday. “Work Advantage also focuses on self-reliance by providing clients with the tools and resources that are critical to their success, something that has not been done before.”

“This program is consistent with our focus on work as a critical path out of poverty,” HRA Commissioner Robert Doar said in the DHS press release. “HRA is committed to being a full partner in providing the supports and tools necessary to get and retain employment and housing.”

But critics of the plan, echoing Markee, say all the job training and financial planning in the world won’t help homeless families transition into permanent housing within two years when the labor market isn’t producing jobs that will sustain a family who isn’t getting rent subsidies while the housing market continues to drive rents up.

“There is no evidence that the labor market will create the kind of jobs needed to move these low-income working families out of poverty within one to two years to a point where they would be able to afford an apartment in a tight housing market without continued rental assistance,” said Annette Bernhardt, deputy director of the Poverty Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. “These time limits fly in the face of reality and will merely push the problem off for the next administration.”

Heidi Siegfried, a supervising attorney at the Partnership for the Homeless who participated in an advocates' advisory committee to DHS, said recipients will have to find jobs paying $15 to $20 per hour in order to live on their own once the subsidy runs out. At a time when some junior attorneys at nonprofits are making around $20 per hour, Siegfried says, it's not clear how formerly homeless people will achieve that earning power.

David Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York, says he knows what will happen when these families have to start paying the rent out of their own pockets – first they’ll have to make sacrifices they can’t afford to make, then find cheaper places to live and finally go back to a city shelter. His group did a four-year study, released last year, on rent burdens placed on low-income New Yorkers.

“Once rent is paid, (poor families have) an average of $32 a week per family member to spend on other necessities, like food, clothing, transportation and medical costs,” Jones said. “In that kind of housing market it is implausible that our poorest families can survive without rental assistance after 12-24 months. These time limits will force families to cut back on vital expenses like food, clothing and health care, lead them to double or triple up in cramped apartments or return to shelter.”

Hess defended the 24-month maximum subsidy. “Two years may not be enough for some families to become self-sufficient, but it will be for most,” he said. “Those who need continuing assistance after their Work Advantage subsidy ends will have their savings and can always turn to our homelessness prevention program, to keep them from having to return to the shelters.”

Homeless advocates also point out that DHS has a history of placing the homeless in sub-standard apartments and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city’s worst landlords to house them.

A recent nine-month study of living conditions by the Coalition for the Homeless, including 2,850 apartments approved by DHS and subsidized by HSP, found that two out of five – more than 1,100 families – were living in apartments with two or three hazardous violations on file with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The city had moved homeless families out of shelters and into apartments with lead paint, leaky ceilings, broken appliances and no heat or hot water.

Last month Hess told the City Council’s General Welfare Committee that DHS would be stepping up apartment inspections for Housing Stability Plus clients. And he promises inspections with higher standards as part of Work Advantage as well.

The HSP subsidy covers all the rent for a year and declines 20 percent a year every year for up to four more years before it cuts off. It also requires that the family or individual stay on public assistance, which causes a set of welfare-related problems the new program is designed to solve.

If an HSP client’s welfare is suspended temporarily, for example, the landlord doesn’t get paid until the tenants get back on public assistance. Naturally, this discourages landlords from participating. Work Advantage will guarantee payments to landlords, Hess said.

Perhaps worse, if a family starts to earn too much money to qualify for public assistance, they lose the HSP rent subsidy altogether – which discourages recipients from working too much or finding a better-paying job. Under the new program, homeless families are not required to receive welfare benefits to qualify.

Other homeless advocates said they're upset about the way in which Work Advantage was announced. They thought they would be consulted more thoroughly before the HSP replacement was formalized.

– Adam F. Hutton

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