Fewer Services For The Homeless

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From now through March 24, City Council committees will be holding hearings on the preliminary budget presented by Mayor Bloomberg on Jan. 28. The annual budget gains momentum amidst a civic fog of dismay and uncertainty – dismay over the ongoing chaos in Albany, and uncertainty about how that, and the state’s generally poor economy, will affect the city’s $63 billion budget.

Council will gather its findings into a report to be delivered by April 8, which should inform the mayor’s Executive Budget to be released by April 26.

The number of New York City residents without homes continues to grow. Daily estimates of the number of people in shelters hover around 37,000 – the population of a decent-sized town in New Jersey or Connecticut. Even if the economy is starting to show glimmers of recovery, city revenue from taxes is way down and the anticipated fiscal year 2011 budget shows city services in retreat.

In his first term, Bloomberg initiated ambitious plans to cut homelessness in half by deploying aggressive wrap-around services. Yet the new budget pulls back to the Department of Homeless Services’ traditional bailiwick of simply sheltering homeless individuals and families – and calls for doing it with less. DHS’ proposed FY 2011 budget is $699 million, compared to $873 million for the current year. The city’s contribution drops from $340 million to $329 million.

“Reading this budget, I see the agency focusing on its core mission, which is shelter. They are focusing on making sure the stay is shorter and cutting back on the other programs,” said Kerry Spitzer, housing analyst at the Independent Budget Office.

Cuts affect programs throughout the agency, from diminished reimbursements for privately run shelters, to the elimination of a Times Square drop-in center, to the reorganization of the program for street homeless who don’t want to go to shelters.

Reshaping homeless services

Homelessness prevention and aftercare – a centerpiece of Bloomberg’s attempts to stem the tide of homeless families entering shelters – takes a major hit, shrinking by more than 50 percent, from $35.9 million to $15.5 million. The city’s contribution drops from $5 million to $3.4 million, but the biggest loss is in federal aid: from $28 million down to $1 million. DHS spokeswoman Heather Janik said federal funds will be restored in the mayor’s executive budget, which is due in April, once additional stimulus funds are allocated.

The city currently spends huge amounts housing homeless families in motels. Increased emphasis on getting people into permanent housing quickly will mean shorter stays in the hotels, netting savings of $7.6 million. The Safe Haven program, aimed at the chronic street homeless who are reluctant to enter shelters, is losing 40 beds. Those beds will be redirected to regular city shelters, according to the IBO’s analysis. Likewise the Stabilization program will lose 50 slots. These reductions amount to $293,000 saved.

DHS is pulling back on the wrap-around care it heralded in the first two Bloomberg administrations. In the past, the city provided employment counselors at shelters. These counselors helped people find jobs or helped them navigate work training programs as they looked for housing. No more. Employment specialists will be cut from shelters, reducing the budget by $372,000. That translates into approximately 17 contracted jobs and means case workers will have added responsibility for helping residents find jobs.

Of a piece with the administration’s reliance on performance data, reimbursements to independently run shelters will be based on how quickly residents move to permanent homes. The vast majority of shelters are independently run. Now those shelters will be penalized – and see their reimbursements cut – if they don’t move families to permanent housing within six months. The initiative called the Performance Incentive Program is already in effect at family shelters and will be extended to shelters for adult couples in the coming budget year. PIP saves an estimated $703,000, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Another significant program slated for closure is the Open Door, a 24-drop in facility at the Port Authority bus terminal. Serving chronically homeless adults, mostly men, the drop-in center offers a place to rest and help enrolling for or accessing entitlement programs. DHS expects the nearly 200 people served at the center each day to get help at another drop-in center, or from mobile vans that will operate in the area. Before Open Door closes, DHS case workers will attempt to find permanent housing and other services for the clients, said Janik from DHS. This realizes $2.4 million in savings.

Despite all the cuts, DHS is not planning to lay off any employees. “These are unprecedented economic times. In spite of that, DHS is managing to nimbly and effectively maintain core programs and focus on our mission of moving families back to the community in homes of their own as quickly as possible,” said Janik. “Through carefully targeted savings, DHS’ reductions focus on performance incentives and programmatic restructurings, rather than frontline shelter services.”

But some shelter operators see the new budget as an indication that the city is retreating from a social services approach to solving homelessness. They call it short-sighted. “It’s kind of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Just pushing people in and out of the system is not going to solve the problem,” said Manuela Schuadt, executive director at Concourse House, a Bronx shelter that houses 42 families. “The city talked about reducing homelessness by 50 percent. That’s not going to happen, doing things this way.”

Schuadt said the penalties to shelters that fail to move residents into permanent homes quickly enough are particularly counter-productive. “Isn’t not like there has been an increase in the number of landlords who want to take the rental subsidy programs,” she said. “What we’re left to do is cut positions and if we don’t have the services to help our families, we will not be able to move them out as quickly as possible.”

Affordable housing and HASA

Those families leaving shelters might have an even harder time finding permanent homes. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which builds and oversees affordable housing, is scaling its budget way back. In next year’s budget, spending shrinks from $758 million to $576 million. The budget for development – building new housing – is slashed from $113 million all the way to $16 million. The biggest hit is the result of stimulus funding running out.

But HPD spokesman Eric Bederman said the cuts are not a surprise. “The FY10 budget has a good number of one-time funded initiatives that will not be duplicated in FY11, and those funding streams were never expected to be ongoing,” he said. In a Feb. 22 speech at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, Mayor Bloomberg said the New Housing Marketplace plan – his much-touted plan to build or preserve 165,000 housing units – would shift focus from building affordable housing to preserving existing stock.

A targeted program to subsidize housing for those living with HIV/AIDS is drawing particular attention in the budget process. The HIV/AIDS Services Administration, a division of the Human Resources Administration, is slated to lose $10 million under the proposed budget, shrinking from $220 million to $210 million. Housing Works and other advocates for people with HIV/AIDS are protesting the cuts in the supportive housing program, which translate to the elimination of 248 case managers who work intensively with people living with AIDS who qualify for housing assistance.

“What we get from this is that the mayor totally doesn’t care whether this vulnerable population gets housing assistance,” said Esther Lok, assistant director of policy, advocacy and research at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. “We are talking about a population that needs a little bit of help. We are really hitting the very vulnerable population.”

Case managers for the program serve as a central point of contact for people who have been diagnosed with AIDS – but who do not have HIV – and meet income requirements. They help get people food stamps, public assistance, housing services and make referrals to AIDS organizations for medical and other care, Lok said. They negotiate with landlords and make phone calls for Access-a-Ride.

The HIV/AIDS Services Administration serves 44,000 people. Last year a $1.8 million cut in the mayor’s proposed budget was restored by City Council. But Lok said she fears so many constituencies will be lobbying Council for restorations this year that the case managers for people with AIDS will be overlooked.

Lok and others contend the cuts are actually illegal, because the city law requires a 34-to-1 client to caseworker ratio. HRA did not return a call seeking comment on the legal implications of the proposed cuts. But the agency was a focus of ire at a rally on the steps of City Hall on March 8. Activists from Housing Works and New York City AIDS Housing Network joined Bronx City Councilwoman Annabel Palma to decry the cuts. Palma chairs the General Welfare Committee, which planned to hold a hearing on the HASA cuts the same day.

Correction, Mar.9: The HASA client-to-caseworker ratio is 34 to 1, not 30 to 1.