Homeless Must Wait To Get Rental 'Advantage'

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Just a few months after Work Advantage was introduced as the city's latest rental-assistance program to help homeless people achieve permanent housing, some homeless people were surprised to learn they could not participate in the program because applications had been cut off.

Subsidies were to be available to all adults working full- or part-time in April when the city announced a replacement for Housing Stability Plus, the first program created under Mayor Bloomberg designed to place homeless people in permanent housing. Unlike HSP, the Bloomberg administration’s second attempt – Work Advantage – allows shelter residents to work and still receive benefits. HSP had been aimed at families with at least one member receiving public assistance and did not accommodate working adults.

But since Aug. 1, single adults who go to a shelter for help have been barred from signing up for Work Advantage, which covers a full year's rent and encourages recipients to work and save money while they try to attain independence. The subsidy program may be extended for a second year, at the discretion of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS).

In addition to making a significant policy shift away from HSP by allowing people to work and get assistance, Work Advantage reduced the length of time the city will subsidize rent for a homeless person or family from five years down to two. It relies on a city-matched savings account, plus homelessness prevention services after the subsidy ends, to keep people from transitioning out of the shelters, into “permanent” housing, then back to the shelter again.

The cutoff date for Work Advantage came as a shock to homeless advocates. It struck some as an apparent change in policy, renewing skepticism about the effectiveness of the city’s strategies. When Nikita Price from the group Picture the Homeless, composed of homeless or formerly homeless people, discovered a flier (not sponsored by DHS, the agency says) at a shelter last month announcing the application cutoff, his group rallied advocates from other organizations for a strategy session.

Before that could bear fruit, statistics on homelessness released in September as part of the Mayor's Management Report – “a public report card on city services affecting the lives of New Yorkers” – added fuel to critics’ ire. In a Sept. 19 statement released in response, Coalition for the Homeless executive director Mary Brosnahan said, “Three years after Mayor Bloomberg promised to end homelessness in New York City by 2009 … the number of families in shelter has hit a new record high and the number of children seeking shelter is soaring. In fact, this week there were more than 9,500 families in New York City shelters each night – the highest number in history. Really the only number that’s down – for the second year in a row – is the number of homeless families actually placed into permanent housing.”

That’s the one statistic homeless advocates are focused on, especially now that their newest clients won’t be eligible for permanent housing programs at all.

“This situation speaks to the need for solutions that go beyond a patchwork of subsidies to comprehensive affordable housing options for both single people and families,” said Heidi Siegfried, a lawyer for Partnership for the Homeless.

DHS, however, is satisfied with the roll-out of Work Advantage thus far. DHS Deputy Commissioner of Policy and Planning Maryanne Schretzman, who is in charge of evaluating the program, explained last week that DHS had to limit the number of single adults in the program to 1,000 — at least for now — because outside funding to provide permanent housing to singles is limited.

Funding for families is a different story, Schretzman said. In that scenario, the city gets half the rent subsidy from Washington and one-quarter from the state, leaving DHS to come up with the remaining 25 percent. The funding matrix for singles is different, in that the city and state have to pick up a bigger portion of the tab.

“Work Advantage has not been cut off,” says DHS spokeswoman Tanya Valle-Batista. “From the start it was open-ended for families with a cap for single adults, prioritized based on those in shelter for the longest term. As it was a demonstration project on the single adults’ side, there were a certain amount of spots allotted. As these spots had to be prioritized, it was never meant for new, short-term entrants into shelter.”

Members of Picture the Homeless had a different notion about the rationale for the cap. A Sept. 10 letter from the organization to other homeless advocacy groups said that its members met with Schretzman to discuss the new development: “The rationale given for suspending the program is that DHS has been getting feedback from intake workers that people were intentionally becoming homeless in order to avail themselves of this program.”

Schretzman’s recollection of that meeting is slightly different. Picture the Homeless “said they had heard we were putting the cap in place because more people were coming into shelter. I said that might be true, or at least part of the reason, and that I would check and get back to them,” she said. “They probably felt that I was validating that rumor, but believe me we don’t want the people who need shelter to be without it. The cap was not supposed to be a deterrent.”

Some advocates drew a connection between the Work Advantage setup and the change the city instituted Oct. 12, when it ended one-night emergency shelter service for families who had been found ineligible for long-term shelter. Officials said some homeless people were taking advantage of the program by using emergency shelter even when they may have another place to stay.

Patrick Markee, a policy analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, said the city's latest moves signal an approach that “harkens back to the Giuliani years … [by] pointing the finger at homeless families.”

Cutting off rent subsidies for single adults and ending emergency shelter for families, both based on the idea that people are abusing those services, represent attempts by the administration to “artificially keep the number of homeless people down,” Markee said.

Bloomberg promised to reduce homelessness by two-thirds by the end of his term, but DHS counts more than 36,000 people homeless, including a record high number of 9,598 families in city shelters.

As for the claim that homeless singles are becoming homeless just to get rental subsidies, both men say the city is barking up the wrong tree.

“It makes absolutely no sense that people would get evicted, become homeless and go into the system just to take advantage of a two-year rent subsidy program,” says Price. “And we have no evidence that it is actually happening.”

Price said his Bronx-based group and other homeless advocacy groups around the city are scrambling to get answers from city and state officials about what will happen to homeless single adults who want to get into permanent housing, but need government assistance to get started. So far they haven’t gotten any answers.

“What are you going to do for these people instead? You can’t just keep spending money to house them in the shelter system forever,” he said.

Schretzman says that when DHS has successfully housed 1,000 singles through the program, the city will ask the state for more money and will reopen Work Advantage for single adults. So far, more than 1,300 formerly homeless families with children, adult families and single adults are currently living in apartments subsidized by Work Advantage and DHS' other “Advantage” programs, she said – making the program a major success and a substantial improvement over Housing Stability Plus.

“This program has all the right incentives,” Schretzman said. “The homeless don’t have to be on public assistance, which encourages them to work, as opposed to HSP where they had to be on welfare and be careful about how much money they made at work, so that they didn’t lose the housing subsidy. And the beauty for landlords is that once they’ve passed inspection, there is no burden on them. Once their tenants are moved in they are guaranteed to get their rent.”

– Adam F. Hutton

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