What is the next mayor going to do about the crisis of homelessness? At last count, there are some 50,000 people in New York City shelters. We house 5,500 of them in Housing Solutions USA’s 43 different locations, providing a range of high-quality housing services in combination with innovative programming designed to help clients achieve self-sufficiency.
But, the policy decisions are broader than providing shelters and services. Homelessness needs to be a campaign issue. It should not be the sole responsibility of one agency, in this case the Department of Homeless Services. As a city, we have strong resources that if focused on the issue can make a real difference.
Making homelessness a priority
The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) helps ensure that the city meets its legal and moral obligation to house every single individual and family that is truly homeless each and every day to and do so with the dignity and respect they deserve. DHS operates at 98 percent capacity every night. I’m not sure that Marriott could even do that. I believe that DHS should be viewed as a hospital emergency room. Emergency rooms treat us when we have immediate medical needs due to injury or illness, but they do not cause the injuries or illness. In the same way, DHS does not cause homelessness and is largely powerless to create the affordable housing and living wage jobs that would keep individuals and families from experiencing homelessnesss.
Since the 1980’s, there has been an imbalance between a living wage and affordable housing. Ideally, federal, state and local policy needs to converge on the issue. Homelessness is expensive. The cost of having someone live on the street has been estimated at more than $30,000 a year. To begin to help solve the crisis here, you need at least 23 city agencies working together to reduce the number of homeless. It needs to be a priority for the coming administration.
The next mayor should assign a deputy mayor to chair an Interagency Council to Reduce Homelessness. The New York City Housing Authority (the largest in the nation), the Department of Consumer Affairs and Human Resources Administration’s Department of Social Services should all be brought into the picture as well.
Solutions for change
New York City public housing is seriously underfunded – in the $100 to $200 million a year range. This lack of funding has resulted in a huge backlog of repairs, security issues and other challenges. In addition, there is an underutilization of large units. Thousands of them have one or two people in residence, mostly seniors, in three-bedroom apartments. Creative solutions are needed and have begun. The Housing Authority is already planning to lease parking lots and other spaces it owns to developers to generate income. With some of the additional revenue stream, state-of-the-art housing with services on-site could be built for senior citizens currently occupying underutilized units. A number of apartment units – 1,000 per year, for example – could then be allocated to the homeless, perhaps families with a disabled caregiver or child welfare issues.
The Authority’s Section 8 housing subsidies have been oversubscribed and subsequently shut down. However, there are about 100,000 vouchers currently funded. Assuming a turnover rate of six to seven percent a year, there should be 7,000 or so vouchers available annually. In my estimation, half of those vouchers – about 3,500 – could make a real dent in the number of homeless who need a permanent housing subsidy, such as those with a disabled parent.
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has the majority of New York State’s 43,000 units of supportive housing with no time limits. These are beautiful, often green buildings, with wonderful amenities. The result? People are served the same in year 10 as they were the day they moved in. Turnover should be encouraged in existing supportive units where the client no longer requires the level of support needed and is able to live independently. HPD should also consider developing smaller, more basic units in order to build more housing for the same money. By building more units and serving more people, they should be able to free up almost 500 units a year.
A History of success
When I served as DHS commissioner, we decided to take a novel approach to the issue of those living on the streets, which is usually the largest percentage of the homeless population who face the challenges of mental illness or substance abuse. Instead of addressing the situation armed with statistics and reports, we lobbied to interview them and hear what they had to say. We decided to put aside everything we thought we knew about serving the homeless. We learned a lot.
Most of the street homeless felt that living on the streets was their best option, that shelters were (in their estimation) too big, unsafe and too restrictive with too many rules. They wanted a place where they could come and go as they pleased, be high or drunk and have a meal or not.
We worked to create 500 safe havens based in the community. Those that had been on the streets the longest were offered the first bed. There were only three rules:
1. No weapons
2. No fights
3. No drugs or alcohol
We supplied 500 beds in small units, usually ones with 20 to 30 beds with some degree of privacy. On average, within two-and-a-half weeks every bed was full. Some of these individuals had been living on the streets for more than eight years. We found they stayed in when they came in, reduced their alcohol and drug use and wanted the next housing option.
An exit strategy for shelters
I feel strongly that an exit strategy for shelters is needed. Over the last 15 years there have been a number of programs. The first was Section 8 subsidized housing, into which 76 families were moved each week. The second was Housing Stability Plus, a rental subsidy program instituted by DHS in 2004, which moved 86 families per week into housing.
The Advantage New York program, created during my tenure as commissioner and replacing Housing Stability Plus, moved 150 families each week into the community, or one family every 16 minutes of the business day. The program paid the rent for homeless families but required them to work at least 20 hours per week to receive the subsidy. It included job training and assisted families in getting other public benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid and child care. Advantage also required that families save some money and that the city match the savings at the end of the program (usually after about two years).
Advantage has been discontinued for two reasons, number one, a cut in state funding and number two, the notion that every subsidy brings more people into the homeless system looking for free housing. The evidence does not support that. Signing into the homeless system is not an easy process; only one-third of people at the intake shelter end up staying; one-third are ineligible and the last third walk away during the 10-day eligibility period.
The numbers add up
Reinstituting Advantage or an Advantage-like program would make a real difference in my view. I calculate that by freeing up Section 8 subsidies for the homeless, 67 families would move into housing a week. Housing supplied by the Housing Authority could serve another 20 families per week and HPD supportive housing an additional 10 families. All told, this array of programs would move almost 250 families out of homelessness.
Again, the key to accomplishing this is cooperation among many different agencies. The real solution is jobs. As commissioner, I suggested to the Human Resources Administration that they hold a job fair for homeless families. I insisted that it be in similar locations to the agency’s other job fairs, rather than scaled down. As suggested, the event was held at the Javits Center and at 7:30 in the morning, people were lined up around the block. Some 3,000 homeless adults showed up that day ready to work. The lesson? If you offer real hope, people will come.