Progress On Homeless Goal Sees 'Trial' And Error

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Four years to the day after Mayor Michael Bloomberg committed New York City to a major reduction in homelessness, 33,222 people woke up in city shelters last Monday. While that's down from four years ago, it's still higher than when Bloomberg took office in 2001, and a long way from the ambitious target he announced three years later.

To members of Picture the Homeless, the mayor's performance warrants prosecution—at least a mock one. The group, a nonprofit advocacy organization run by homeless people, commemorated the anniversary of the mayor’s plan by putting Bloomberg on “trial” for offenses such as “arrogance for failing to acknowledge his policy’s failures” and “reckless endangerment of a child—14,000 counts and counting,” a reference to the number of children living in shelters.

At a plaza off East 50th street on Tuesday, as the “defendant” (a guy holding a Bloomberg mask) looked on, “witnesses” testified against the mayor. City Councilman Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat who is running for mayor, claimed that rising homelessness is “a direct result of the mayor’s pro-development agenda.” Shelter residents decried the city’s housing subsidy for homeless people as ill-conceived. Activist Turhan White claimed that homeless people “are harassed constantly on a daily basis for no reason whatsoever” by the NYPD. He added: “Mr. Bloomberg, you have the authority—the power—to calm your boys down. It’s up to you.” The verdict was a foregone conclusion: “Guilty! Guilty!” the crowd shouted. Bloomberg’s sentence: to spend a year in a city-funded shelter.

The mayor is unlikely to heed the court’s order. But when he leaves office at the end of 2009, judgment will be passed on the plan he unveiled in June 2004, when he told a group assembled by the Association for a Better New York: “We are too strong, and too smart, and too compassionate a city to surrender to the scourge of homelessness. We won't do it. We won’t allow it.” Called Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter, the Bloomberg plan sought to shift city policy from relying on temporary shelters toward promoting permanent housing and homelessness prevention.

The plan included a menu of innovative policy approaches: discharge planning so inmates getting out of city jails wouldn't end up on the streets, an effort to coordinate drop-in centers citywide, better-skilled outreach workers, and so-called “low-threshold” housing to get hardcore homeless off the street even if they aren't at first interested in mental health or drug rehab services. It was all aimed at Bloomberg's goals of “ending chronic homelessness in 10 years” and reducing street homelessness and the shelter population by two-thirds by the end of 2009.

A two-thirds reduction in the shelter populations would require the total number of people living in shelters to fall from 36,600 when Bloomberg announced the plan, to around 12,100 in 2009; the current census of 33,200 represents a 9.3 percent reduction. The street homeless count would have to drop from 4,395 (when the first one-night, citywide count was taken in 2005) to 1,450, but the 2008 survey found 3,306 on the street.

Though the Department of Homeless Services declined to offer a “defense” to the “prosecution,” DHS points to progress in reducing the homeless population in several categories, and in placing 700 people in permanent housing since the fall. Press secretary Heather Janik said in a statement: “Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City has created one of the most sophisticated shelter systems in the country. Continuous, effective improvements have been made throughout the Administration. DHS has shifted policy to action, implementing critical prevention, outreach and cultural changes to better serve the homeless population.”

But unless the next 18 months see extremely rapid progress, the city will not hit the target Bloomberg set four summers ago. The numbers of homeless people are down from their 2003 highs, but in no way are they on track for a two-thirds reduction.

At this point in the mayor’s plan, there were supposed to be fewer than 4,500 families in shelters, but there are more than 8,600. Only 5,000 single adults were supposed to be housed in shelters in Year 4, but in actuality more than 6,500 are. And the shelter census only covers those who get in: Last year, nearly 9,000 families were found ineligible for temporary housing. While the majority of the 12,000 families that were found eligible in fiscal year 2007 succeeded on their first application, fully one-third had to try more than once. Outside the shelters, street homelessness is down 25 percent from 2005 to 2008—dramatic, but not even halfway to the mayor’s target of a two-thirds reduction.

Bloomberg's goal of reducing homelessness by two-thirds was ambitious, advocates say, but achievable. They blame several policy moves for shortcomings so far. For three years, the administration’s key program for getting homeless people into permanent housing was Housing Stability Plus, which offered rent subsidies for five years but sharply reduced the subsidy each year, squeezing families that were still getting on their feet. The administration dropped that program last year in favor of three new rent subsidy programs; DHS says those programs have been unexpectedly popular, with 4,000 families signing up already.

The mayor’s decision in 2004 to stop providing Section 8 housing vouchers to families leaving shelters was another obstacle for the plan, according to the advocacy group – and frequent administration critic – Coalition for the Homeless. Studies have shown that Section 8 is an effective antidote to homelessness. The Bloomberg administration, however, has credited its changed Section 8 policy with opening up vouchers for other rent-pressured New Yorkers. Last year, the city offered 22,000 new Section 8 vouchers, and earmarked 3,000 for families at risk of homelessness.

Rather than decentralizing its intake operation as the 2004 plan outlined, DHS has proposed moving its single intake center for homeless men from the Bellevue Hospital campus to Bedford-Stuyvesant. Advocates and some elected officials oppose the move because it would take the intake center out of the borough that has the largest street homeless population.

Even where the city is closer to its goals—such as in reducing the number of single homeless adults—advocates are skeptical. According to the Coalition, much of the decline is due to the city moving homeless adults to unsafe, illegal boarding houses, but DHS disputes the claim. Comptroller William Thompson reported earlier this month that DHS is using an “off-the-books account” to pay $161 million this fiscal year to private shelters that lack contracts with the city.

But not all the reduction in homelessness since 2003 can be attributed to shady residences or bad bookkeeping. DHS points to the expansion of its Homebase prevention services to all five boroughs as one reason why homelessness numbers have shown improvement in recent months. The city's completion of supportive housing units—which offer services and housing to people with mental health, substance abuse or other problems—is making a dent in single adult homelessness, which is down 22 percent since May 2004. And two of the new rent subsidy programs, Fixed Income Advantage and Children Advantage, are real improvements, says Coalition for the Homeless senior policy analyst Patrick Markee, because they offer families a chance at a Section 8 voucher.

A third program, however, called Work Advantage, offers subsidies for only one or two years—a timetable that advocates oppose. “I think this administration does not see family homelessness as being a housing affordability problem. They think it is a behavioral problem,” Markee says. Among homeless families, Markee argues, the problem is not joblessness but rents that are too high for working people to afford.

While the mayor’s affordable housing plan sets aside 12,000 units of supportive housing, not all will go to people in the shelter system and at least half of those units won’t be ready until after 2011. In fiscal year 2007, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development completed 15,550 units of affordable housing; 405 went to homeless people—although the city can argue that the housing plan helped a far larger number of families avoid homelessness by getting an apartment they can afford.

Hoping to spur more affordable housing development, Councilman Avella and Picture the Homeless are pushing City Council legislation that would fine owners of vacant land or buildings (for taking up valuable space that could be used for housing). The Bloomberg administration, saying it is reluctant to interfere in a real estate market that’s already fairly turbulent, has been cool to the proposal. Avella's bill would also give shelter residents the option of converting the money the city spends on their shelter into a voucher that they would use to obtain permanent housing. The average shelter family spends 325 days in a city facility, costing the city $95 per day, for a total expense of more than $30,000.

The State Assembly and Senate last week passed a law that reclassifies vacant properties into a higher tax bracket, which sponsors Sen. Jos

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