As Homeless Numbers Rose, Clashes Over Policies

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The PATH building in the south Bronx, where families go to apply for shelter. The Bloomberg administration built it to replace the Emergency Assistance Unit, which became a symbol of dysfunctional homeless policy during the Giuliani years.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

The PATH building in the south Bronx, where families go to apply for shelter. The Bloomberg administration built it to replace the Emergency Assistance Unit, which became a symbol of dysfunctional homeless policy during the Giuliani years.

Two years after Mayor Bloomberg announced his bold plan to reduce the city’s shelter population by 66 percent, his administration was well on its way. By June 2006, the shelters had 15 percent fewer people than in June of 2004.

In 2007, however, the numbers had begun to climb. They were up 11 percent by that June. In October, the census crossed the 36,000 mark again. By September 2009, with the mayor in the midst of his campaign for a third term, the numbers broke 37,000.

During that period, the city’s unemployment rate rocketed from 4.6 percent to 10 percent, clearly contributing to the swelling shelter lines.

As the shelter population began growing alongside shelter costs, the Bloomberg administration made a series of moves, some of which were supported—and others criticized by—advocates and regulators. Some of these debates dealt with how DHS decided who was eligible for shelter, and others with how it housed the people it deemed were entitled to a place.

The most significant fights, however, were over how to get people out of shelters and into regular housing.

Some efforts panned, others accepted

On some issues, DHS faced criticism before and after the mayor’s homelessness plan, and before and after the rise in shelter population. In October 2003, following an audit from the comptroller’s office, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city’s 20-year-old practice of renting hotels for emergency shelter without a contract would end. Six years later, a another comptroller audit claimed the practice of using so-called “handshake hotels” had continued, something DHS denied.

DHS has also been criticized for renting apartments in private buildings to house homeless people—in effect, according to critics and neighbors who didn’t like the plan, turning these buildings into shelters without community input. Meanwhile, some neighborhoods have resisted the siting of regular shelters in their midst.

Amid that criticism about its efforts to accommodate the swelling shelter population, DHS looked for creative ways to find alternative housing for applicants. The agency started offering one-way tickets to shelter seekers in 2007, after Bloomberg granted the agency a budget of $500,000 for that purpose. Families willing to consider relocating to another state or country would be sent to the Bronx intake center’s fifth floor to arrange travel details with a city caseworker. While top destinations were Puerto Rico and Florida at least one family was flown to Paris for $6,332.

Advocates, usually reliable critics of DHS, defended the program as a sensible way to help people who could fare better elsewhere. But they were critical when, shortly before the summer of 2009, New York City’s family shelters suddenly started charging rent to their working residents, in compliance with a state law.

Legal Aid Society’s attorney in chief Steve Banks criticized the poor execution of the new measure—which included instances of families asked to come up with significant amount of money on short notice, and threatened with eviction for not complying. It also prompted a quick reaction from Coalition for the Homeless’ Patrick Markee, who argued that homeless people would be better off saving money to get a place of their own, rather than wasting it on temporary shelter rooms.

DHS shifted the policy a year later to a compulsory savings program that aims to provide shelter residents with a “nest egg” when they leave.

Questions about eligibility

As pressure on the shelter system increased, so did the tendency of DHS to turn shelter applicants down.

Back in the Giuliani administration, the city started a legal battle against the Callahan v. Carey decision, trying to establish regulations under which DHS staff could deny or terminate shelter for homeless adults if they didn’t follow rules and social-service plans. After a court rejected the Giuliani-initiated efforts in 2000, Bloomberg in 2002 appealed the decision. In the end homeless services were granted the right to modify Callahan and implement shelter termination rules.

But while that controversy focused on homeless adults, thousands of families with children have also been subject to denials every year.

Monica was left penniless by her husband, whose drinking habit destroyed the family’s finances, precipitating their eviction from their Connecticut apartment. When she gathered the strength to leave him, she decided to come to New York City and stay with her sister until she could sort something out.

“When I got to my sister’s place, we found out that I wasn’t allowed to stay for more than 14 days a month or she’ll get banned from there,” says Monica, whose sister lives in a single-room-occupancy, where the lease limits tenants’ ability to house guests. “So here I am, with nowhere to go, my three-year-old, and less than two weeks to find a place.”

So on November 29th, Monica went to PATH, the city’s intake center, and applied for a shelter place. Under Callahan and other court rulings, anyone seeking shelter must be given at least an emergency bed for the night.

But as experienced by Monica on New Year’s Eve, many families seeking more stable shelter get repeatedly turned down by the system. And this trend is clearly on the rise.

In 2007 more than one family out of two applying for a shelter place was found eligible, and placed in a stable shelter. Last year, along with the increased need for shelter, city statistics show that nearly 7 out of 10 applicants were deemed ineligible. As advocates have pointed out, the true scale of New York City’s homelessness crisis could therefore be even larger than the 49,000 or so currently reported by the Department of Homeless Services’ daily census report.

Since the Giuliani administration, shelter applicants have been asked to provide documentation proving they have nowhere else to go. “I brought my eviction notice but I’ve been told it wasn’t enough because it didn’t show when we moved in,” Monica explains, adding that she didn’t keep her landlords number.

Since the first she applied in November, Monica and her daughter were denied a more long-term placement eight times in a row, forced to go through the application process again and again while staying in various emergency shelters.

Hannah Biskind, a shelter advocate at the Urban Justice Center, has been helping families like Monica’s, who have been denied access to shelter. “Any gaps or lack of verification over the past two years, and you’re found ineligible,” she says. “The problem is that often people are couch surfing, or fall out with the family member, or friend that they were staying with and can’t prove where they’ve been staying.”

The Department of Homeless Services then carries out investigations based on the documents attached to the application, calling up neighbors and showing up at the last given address to make sure the family cannot stay there. “They’ll go to the location, knock on the door and see if it’s too crowded,” explains Biskind. “They’ll tell you to go back to that family member and give advice on how to rearrange the house so it fits.”

In 2011, the Bloomberg administration attempted to impose even stricter rules on single adults seeking shelters, putting the burden on applicants—including those with mental illness or addictions—to prove that they have no alternative housing before receiving shelter.

While this move and others like it drew criticism for their alleged callousness, DHS defends them as necessary for preserving a finite resources—the city’s shelter beds—for people who truly have no place to go. Eschewing tough eligibility rules, DHS argues, doesn’t mean everybody gets a bed. It just means that who gets the beds might be determined by who gets in line first, not who needs it more.

Under the pressure of advocates and a number of city officials, including the City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Bloomberg eventually backed down from the 2011 proposal.

Claims about comfort

To explain the rising numbers, Bloomberg has more than once blamed it on the comfort offered by the shelter system. “You never know what motivates people. One theory is that some people have been coming into the homeless system, in order to qualify for a program that helps you move out of the homeless system,” said the mayor in a 2011 radio show. The following year, Michael Bloomberg reiterated this argument: “We have made our shelter system so much better that, unfortunately, when people are in it—or fortunately depending on what your objective is—it is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.”

This is an argument that Monica and many other shelter residents find hard to digest. Nakiya Edwards, a 23-year-old Brooklyn native, has been living in a shelter since the early days of September. She now has two jobs and works on average ten hours a day, five to six days a week, and still only makes around $1,600 a month. With two mouths to feed, Edwards is having a hard time finding a place of her own.

“This is not comfortable at all, this is not my ideal of living,” says Edwards revolted, when hearing Bloomberg’s argument on what brings people to seek shelter. While she acknowledges that a small part of the shelter population might find themselves comfortable, with all the free food and no bills to pay, she says most are trying to get out. “Why would I want to be controlled?” she asks. “It’s almost like being institutionalized.”

She recalls the first night she had to sleep on a shelter bed. She was in a Brooklyn emergency shelter, while waiting for the administration to accept her application to enter the shelter system. For 12 days, Edwards, who describes herself as “a bit of a clean-freak,” was sharing a room with nine other women.

“I’m not used to see all these people, and I stayed there for five minutes, staring at the bed… I was so scared of lying on that bed,” she recalls with humor.

Edwards is now in a much nicer shelter, with a majority of working women like her, who like to stay out of trouble. But she remembers the disorder that can dominate shelter life, beyond the daily discomfort of simple rules such as not being able to decorate your room or respecting the facility’s curfew. “People get naked, you see people take coke or smoke and get into fights,” Edwards said. “When you mind your own business you’re fine, but it’s not a place where you want to be.”

For Arnold Cohen, the president of Partnership for the Homeless, the city’s reaction to rising shelter numbers reveals a sense of helplessness. “They basically blamed the homeless people: ‘They’re not looking for work. They’re not making efforts. We’ve made it too comfortable for them,’ or ‘We’re going to get them flight tickets because they’re not from New York,’ ” says Cohen, who has been at the head of the nonprofit since 1999.

Struggle to find an exit from shelter

One of Bloomberg’s most controversial initiatives on homelessness was his decision to stop prioritizing shelter residents for a federal rent subsidy, Section 8, or public housing. Since the 1970s the city had relied on long-term federal programs to help the homeless move out of shelters. The number of available units on the market has dwindled over the years. Still, about a third of Section 8 vouchers and public housing units were put aside for that purpose.

“The people around him convinced the mayor that people would be coming to the shelters, that Section 8 would be an inducement to enter the system,” recalls Cohen.

But Bloomberg’s decision to cut the link that once connected shelter residents to federal housing meant there was no pathway out of the shelter for those with long-term housing needs. To avoid a rise in shelter numbers, Bloomberg launched the city’s own rental assistance program.

Financially, contributing to the rent of struggling New Yorkers made sense. The cost of a night in a shelter mildly fluctuates around $70 a night, or $2,100 a month, while a family costs taxpayers around $3,000 a month. Facing lengthier stays in the system and skyrocketing shelter costs, the city could not afford eliminating federal options without offering some sort of alternative.

Bloomberg thus experimented with a series of time-limited programs. In the space of three mayoral terms, the Department of Homeless Services introduced three different programs. All were phased out, modified or simply terminated.

First there was Housing Stability Plus, launched soon after the mayor’s 2004 speech unveiling the homelessness reduction plan. Unlike the lifelong Section 8 vouchers, the program had a five-year term limit and required that its recipients receive public assistance—virtually preventing them from getting back to work. It also withdrew 20 percent of the subsidy each year. The program was despised by advocates. Only three years in, HSP participants were phased out into a new rental subsidy—Advantage New York.

The new program started taking applications in 2007 and offered a shorter, one-to-two year financial support. Four versions of Advantage served different categories of clients: tenants with a fixed income, families with young children, working individuals and a rarely used short-term subsidy of four months.

Less than three years later, the administration launched a new, single version of the Advantage program. Tenants would be responsible for a much more significant part of their rent, which grew from a mere $50 under the previous scheme, to between 30 and 40 percent. This time round, the program also incentivized work for all its recipients, who had a minimum work requirement of 20 hours a week.

A brief stint of stability

It is thanks to the Advantage program that Nakiya Edwards, got her first apartment.

After spending months stuck in a shelter with a low-paying job and no better opportunity in sight, she was accepted for Advantage. As required by the lease she signed upon moving in, Edwards kept her job as a security officer in a Brooklyn shelter throughout the two years of the program.

“It was the best thing ever,” Edwards says, remembering the first day she moved into her one bedroom apartment by Yankee Stadium.

Then one morning in March 2012, she got a letter from the Department of Homeless Services. “My heart dropped,” she recalls. Her time was up.

“I didn’t get a chance to go to school, save the money I needed to get a place of my own,” says Edwards still full of regrets. “I was trying to get a situation and when I got on my feet, they took it away.”

Like Edwards, many felt that a two-year program was too short to get a real chance to get back on their feet. Describing it as a revolving door to the shelter system, advocates and Council members fiercely criticized the program and the philosophy behind it.

City officials publicly said that 90 to 80 percent of Advantage tenants did not return to the shelters. However, data obtained via the Freedom of Information Law by the Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless suggested that one in four did.

A program collapses

Advocates’ complaints about the inefficiency of the rental subsidy led to a series of hearings at the state legislature, ultimately prompting Governor Cuomo to withdraw $85 million in state funding for the program in his 2011 budget.

Advantage was an expensive program—$210 million at its peak—which received two-thirds of its budget from the state and federal governments. Since the federal contribution was tied to state funds, cutting one meant ending the other.

According to sources, Cuomo, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development who also chaired a key commission on New York homelessness in the early nineties, had hoped the threat to cut funding for Advantage would pressure Bloomberg into returning to long-term federal options such as Section 8. But Bloomberg refused to back down.

The precipitous end of the program forged strange alliances. Advocates begged Albany to save a program that they had fiercely criticized—because, they argued, it was better than nothing. When the city tried to shut the program down, in light of the state cuts, Legal Aid sued to try to maintain support for families still in the program. The program was eventually discontinued and, according to city officials and advocates, hundreds of families started to fall back on rent and face eviction procedures.

With no more housing subsidy in the middle of a tough economic crisis, shelter residents have been struggling to leave the system.

“If you don’t have any type of program to get out of the shelter, people are going to get stuck,” says Stephen Levin, a member of the New York City Council from Brooklyn.

Indeed, the length of stay in New York City shelters has been increasing for both single adults and families. On average a family spends 389 days in the system, which represents a twenty percent increase since 2011.

To this day the city still hasn’t replaced the Advantage program, and according to DHS officials, nothing is in the pipeline.

“The state has indicated that they would not be willing to participate in another program and in time of great need, it’s too expensive for the city alone,” says DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond, who arrived in office in 2010. “I think that’s really the tragedy of losing that program; it was such a big dollar figure that to recapture that in this budget environment is almost impossible.”

Continue reading:
PART FIVE: Debate Over Root of Shelter Surge, Mayor’s Legacy
Some blame the collapse of a key housing program for high homeless numbers. Others say economic woes are still a factor.