Success and Struggles Point to a Better Way to Help NYC’s Chronically Homeless

Print More
Mark Williams at the roof garden of the Jericho Project where he lives on Kingsbridge Terrace in the Bronx. He has been visiting the VA hospital (that gray building in the background) regularly to exercise and get care for his diabetes.

Adi Talwar

Mark Williams at the roof garden of the Jericho Project where he lives on Kingsbridge Terrace in the Bronx. He has been visiting the VA hospital (that gray building in the background) regularly to exercise and get care for his diabetes.

For three years, Mark Williams has come home to his own studio apartment in a spacious six-story building on the western edge of Fordham manor. But even now, Williams remembers exactly what it’s like to freeze on the New York City streets in the winter:

“Dead man’s cold.”

Williams is one of 46 formerly homeless veterans living in supportive housing at Kingsbridge Terrace, an apartment building operated by Jericho Project, a 33-year old nonprofit that runs 500 of New York City’s 32,000 such units. In supportive housing, affordable rents—each resident pays one-third of his income—are combined with social services like therapy, substance abuse treatment and career counseling. The model has long been heralded as an effective tool to reduce both homelessness and city spending. One study showed that supportive housing for frequent users of the shelter, jail and hospital system saved around $15,000 per person.

Big promises by the mayor and governor indicate that officials are grasping the math. Government-backed supportive housing is not new in New York City—since 1990, three city-state partnerships have created around 14,000 units. But the last agreement—called “NY/NY III”—expired in June, with a dwindling unit count in the pipeline. Last November, Mayor de Blasio announced the city would be committing to 15,000 units built over the next 15 years, which would supplement the 1,800 NY/NY III units that have been awarded but are yet to be constructed. In January, Governor Cuomo announced his own unilateral plan for 20,000 units over 15 years.

This summer the city and state have started to roll these plans out. In late June, the state began accepting proposals for $150 million in capital dollars for new construction, which Cuomo released at the end of the session in Albany. Previously appropriated funds were used in another proposal that will fund services and operating costs in 1,200 units. And on August 5th, the city began accepting proposals for 500 “scattered site” units, which are leased in existing apartments and serviced by a nonprofit.

While previous phases of supportive housing in New York all grew out of agreements between the mayor and governor, de Blasio and Cuomo have inked no deal. That lack of agreement, and delays in getting state officials to sign a memorandum of understanding outlining their own approach, make some advocates nervous.

But the new plans have also offered providers, officials and nonprofit leaders the chance to reflect on their three-decade experiment with the supportive housing. In January, the city created a task force to study the successes and failures of past rounds. Officials say recommendations from these insights will be reflected as they continue to unveil their plan.

William’s well-funded, LEED-certified apartment is one sign of how far that field has come since 1990, when the first city-state agreement was signed. Supportive housing was first invented in Manhattan’s SRO hotels, which by the 1980s were disappearing as the borough gentrified. The hotels had long served as refuges for mentally ill and destitute New Yorkers in the wake of deinstitutionalization. Nearly 40 years later, the motley crew of academics, housing activists and clergy that pioneered the model with little governmental support has evolved into a proper field, with its own conferences, professional organizations and lobbying strategy.

But the basic proposition of supportive housing has remained consistent: services plus permanent housing equals an end to chronic homelessness. Yet with four residents vying for each open space, supportive housing is a scarce resource, forcing providers and bureaucrats to grapple with how to select and house the city’s most needy—or that even more fraught criterion, most deserving—homeless people.

De Blasio and Cuomo have not agreed to a joint supportive housing plan, but each has promised to create thousands of supportive units.

Office of the Governor

De Blasio and Cuomo have not agreed to a joint supportive housing plan, but each has promised to create thousands of supportive units.

Funding solutions

One of the reasons that supportive housing has worked, proponents say, is the stable base it provides for making other, more complicated changes. “You are there in people’s homes so you are really able to do a deep dive” says Tori Lyon, the executive director of Jericho Project.

While less expensive than shelters, jails or hospitals, supportive housing still requires apartments and well-trained staff. New York’s stock of supportive housing has grown along with the city’s median rents, and making sure that funding keeps up with soaring housing costs is a concern, providers say. In the earlier plans, signed in 1990, 1999 and 2005, funding was not set to rise with the market. For some providers, this created an ever-growing gap in funding as ballooning rents threaten to cut into service money.

Kingsbridge Terrace was funded in the last wave of supportive housing, but the nonprofit also has units from the less well-funded 1999 agreement. Jericho Project has been able to cover cover the gap through fundraising, Lyon says.

Kristin Misner-Gutierrez, Deputy Commissioner for Supportive and Affordable Housing and Services at the city’s social services department, the Human Resources Administration or HRA, says that officials are taking these concerns seriously. The city’s plan for its first 500 units separates service funds from rent, which will depend on the size of the unit and increase 2 percent annually.

For its part, the state’s first proposal for the new round of supportive housing stays the course of previous agreements by offering a lump sum for services, operations and rent. It does suggest that the rate may be tied to inflation, although that will be “subject to available appropriations for and/or statutory authorization of such increases.”

These changes will affect future units, but not the roughly 14,000 created in past NY/NY agreements.

The shortfall is especially daunting to providers who, for a variety of reasons, rely on funding other than the NY/NY agreements. Agencies that serve portions of the homeless population that weren’t included in those plans, like domestic violence survivors who don’t have diagnoses of serious mental illness, HIV/AIDS or substance abuse disorders, depend on other funding.

New Destiny Housing in the Bronx is one example. To serve its supportive housing tenants, who are survivors of domestic violence, the agency relies on its own fundraising and the New York State Supportive Housing Program (NYSSHP), a funding source that has been threatened with severe cuts since the recession. In its last round, the NYSHHP rate for families was roughly a third of what the city’s new plan promises for a similar unit—and the city plan includes an additional $16,000 for rent. The supports these agencies can provide depends on making up that gap through foundation money and private donations.

Whom to target?

With such high demand and low supply, the discussion among supportive housing providers centers on whom to prioritize from New York’s homeless population in the next wave. Members of the Mayor’s Task Force told City Limits the need for more flexibility and sophistication in that selection process was a common refrain during the committee meetings.

Daniel Tietz, chief special services officer at HRA, said that while categories in the first 500 units proposed on August 5 won’t reflect the new recommendations, subsequent waves will.

Since its inception, New York’s supportive housing has targeted the chronically homeless—those who cycle for long periods of time between the street and shelter.

Research on chronic homelessness has been a key way that supportive housing has broken into the policy mainstream. In the late 90s, a landmark study by researcher Dennis Culhane classified the homeless population according to their shelter use and found that a relatively small number of frequent, “chronic” users accounted for the lion’s share of shelter residents. In a subsequent study of the first New York city and state agreement, Culhane reached a similar conclusion: placing one chronic user of the jails, hospitals and shelters in supportive housing saved the city upwards of $16,000 per year. Studies of the later agreements have backed up this earlier research.

The first two agreements, signed in 1990 and 1999, were the first state’s first attempts to permanently house long-term, homeless and seriously mentally ill people. For residents of the eroding SROs who had been all but abandoned by the state, this was a milestone.

For Williams, this focus on the chronically homeless was fortunate. Williams passed through the circuit of homeless life in New York before he received the keys to his own apartment. Born in Bed-Stuy, he served during peacetime at a base in Kansas before winding his way back to New York. After becoming homeless, Williams lived in cars, abandoned houses, emergency shelters with early curfews, a rehab facility on Long Island, sketchy three-quarter housing, and finally the veteran’s shelter Patriot House in Queens, where a caseworker referred him to Jericho.

But while the first two agreements focused exclusively on the chronically homeless and serious mentally ill, the most recent took a different approach. Signed by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki in 2005, NY/NY III prioritized nine specific portions of the homeless population. It was the first time the city had “targeted” more specific groups, to use the field’s somewhat martial language. Families with serious illness, youth aging out of foster care, and recent and active substance users were included for the first time. A portion of the 9,000 units were assigned to each group.

According to Ryan Moser at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the targeting involved in the last wave of supportive-housing served a purpose, successfully proving that supportive housing could be useful to many excluded in the previous agreements. But it also created a new problem: “we created so many categories,” Moser says, that it was at times felt as specific as “your hair was yellow and it was raining” . “That led to a push to avoid segmenting the target population. Across New York City people were saying, let’s provide to those who are most needy.”

Lyon, who also notes how groundbreaking the last agreement was, points to a similar inflexibility. “In NY/NY III they had two substance use populations. One was for those who had completed a treatment program and one was for active users. You could have completed treatment recently, and then relapsed, but then a month later you might be sober again. It just didn’t make sense to separate the populations like that.”

Providers also commented on the categories of youth and young adults, another portion of the homeless included for the first time in the last round. While the agreement targeted youth transitioning out of foster care, it left out young adults who were homeless for other reasons but faced a similar struggle in getting housing.

In a city with a June count of over 60,000 homeless individuals in the shelter system, determining who has the highest need is no small feat. But officials say they will be tackled differently in the new round. According to Tietz, “We know people don’t live in those kinds of categories.”

Experts are discussing how the city could move to a vulnerability index, which uses data-matching to determine the threat of homelessness according to risk factors rather than the siloed quotas—like “youth transitioning out of foster care”—used in the last wave.

The referral process, administered by HRA with guidance from the agencies who work with the specific population at hand, is already complex. From around 3,000 referral sites, DHS ultimately delivers three potential clients for each space to providers like Jericho Project. Some providers have specialized in different groups within the homeless population, in part due to the criteria of the previous city-state plans, Lyon said.

But the challenge of referrals is not just technical. With the influence of Housing First, sobriety is no longer a valid reason for turning candidates away. But at the Supportive Housing Network of New York conference early this year, one front line worker, referencing a DHS manifest, pointed out that providers may be able to “cream” their intake by choosing clients they perceive to be easier to work with. Kristin Misner-Gutierrez, deputy Commissioner for Supportive and Affordable Housing and Services who was on the panel at the time, answered this critique by saying that task force had considered ways to assure that comparable needs are presented in the options sent to each provider.

A changing model

More flexible tools for classifying homeless New Yorkers might open up Supportive Housing to those who were absent or represented in low numbers in previous agreements, like families, the formerly incarcerated, and certain homeless youth.

In part, that shift is being forced by the changing demographics of homelessness in New York. Chronic veteran’s homelessness, a problem that Jericho Project has focused on, has decreased in recent years, with the de Blasio administration claiming some measure of victory. But other populations have soared. including most dramatically, homeless families. The shelter count for homeless families has almost doubled since the summer of 2005, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

The discussion of homeless families is one of the number of topics where the supportive housing discussion bleeds into the broader debate about the affordable housing crisis. A number of studies have shown that rapid rehousing is remarkably successful in keeping homeless families off the streets and out of shelters.

But supportive housing providers note that for some families supportive housing is a good option, including those where a heads of households struggling with mental illness or substance abuse. For a model originally adapted around single, aging men with severe mental illnesses, this is a pivot. The last agreement experimented with family units, and Misner-Gutierrez told City Limits that the task force explored whether new units could expand services to include the entire family: “even if the parent is the person who may need the supportive housing ,there may be other services that are needed in the family.”

Another group some hope will be prioritized in the new plans are the formerly incarcerated. As advocates point out, those exiting jail or prison were largely excluded from previous agreements, despite their high rates of homelessness. In an April 16th memorandum to the task force, a coalition of organizations argue that the formerly incarcerated have been “shortchanged in every supportive housing agreement to date despite their need for this intervention, and thus very few supportive housing units in New York City have been targeted at this population.”

While the previous agreements did not explicitly exclude the formerly incarcerated, they didn’t include them either. As the political consensus swings towards a re-examination of the criminal justice system, planners might find a place for those leaving prison in supportive housing. To get their point across, advocates are relying on their field’s traditional standby, data and cost-saving. One pilot focused on formerly incarcerated New Yorkers saved $15,000 per person.

Moving on?

From the start, supportive housing was defined in contrast to “community residences” and other early forms of transitional housing. Officials are careful to emphasize that the new units will be permanent. But the profile of some of the new populations targeted in this round raise questions about “moving on.”

For many residents at Kingsbridge Terrace, permanent housing is just that—permanent. “They have the lease. They are welcome to stay here as long as they want,” said Sarah A. Harris, a senior social worker at Jericho Project. But for specific populations, like young adults who need help getting on their feet or those recently released from the criminal justice system, it may be one stop on a path.

Lyon says the biggest challenge in serving those individuals is the shortage of affordable housing for them to move to. Last year, Jericho Project received seventeen Section 8 vouchers in a small “moving on” initiative; five are still looking for housing. Formerly homeless families have faced discrimination from landlords when attempting to use LINC vouchers, although a decision in the state Supreme Court this month reinforced the city’s existing law barring housing discrimination against the homeless.

Annette, a four-year tenant at Brooklyn Community Housing and Services (BCHS), wants to move on. She arrived in supportive housing after moving between shelters and rehab facilities for three years. In an earlier bout of homelessness in the late 90s, she didn’t qualify for supportive housing because she was struggling with substance abuse rather than serious mental illness, but by 2012 that criteria changed. Now a peer advocate, Annette said that entering supportive housing “felt like being back in society. The next step for me is to really being back in society,” which for her means moving out of supportive housing.

It’s unclear how broadly that sentiment is shared. In an experiment in the early 2000s, only a small number of the tenants involved chose to leave supportive housing. It’s too early to see whether the changing demographics of the housing stock will change those numbers.

Yet supportive housing remains at its core permanent housing. One of the earliest and perhaps most radical innovations in the first supportive housing projects in the old SRO hotels, like the Heights, was the emphasis on the leases being in the tenant’s name. Like the key to the apartment, leases were hard evidence of ownership and choice for a group of New Yorkers rarely given either.

Williams is choosing to stay at Kingsbridge Terrace, at least for the time being. He remembers what it’s like on the streets, walking past the lighted windows of apartment after window in the winter. He also remembers what moving in to Kingsbridge Terrace felt like: “I had my own place. I felt comfortable. I was proud.”

City Limits’ coverage of housing policy is supported by the New York Community Trust and the Revson Foundation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *