A routine request for proposals process has escalated into a heated dispute over the future of the city shelter system, putting at stake a long-standing collaboration between city government and a coalition of religious shelters. At issue are two concept papers released last month by the city’s Department of Homeless Services, outlining a plan the agency says will foster greater efficiency in the provision of emergency shelter. Some advocates for the homeless say the proposals, which include reductions in drop-in center hours and cuts to the shelter transportation budget, amount to a radical downsizing of the faith-based shelter network.

Clergy and volunteers with the Partnership for the Homeless, which coordinates volunteer-run shelters across the city, are moving to block the RFP, which is scheduled to be released by mid-December. Their protest comes in the wake of 22 church shelter closings this year—seven in Brooklyn, 13 in Queens, and one each in Manhattan and the Bronx—representing a combined capacity of 150 beds. “If the Department of Homeless Services has its way, this network will be broken apart,” said Arnold Cohen, president of the Partnership for the Homeless, at the organization’s annual meeting last month. “And many of you and your congregations who have selflessly dedicated so much of your time and energy to this cause will be simply cast aside.”

The emergency shelter network, in which city-run drop-in centers connect the homeless to privately run shelters in churches and synagogues, grew out of a collaboration between Mayor Ed Koch and religious leaders in 1982. The shelters provide an alternative to the large municipal shelters at places like Ward’s Island and the Bedford-Atlantic Armory, which have been notorious hubs of crime and drug abuse. Volunteers at faith shelters cook, clean and provide fellowship, but are not permitted to proselytize their guests.

Under the RFP, providers of respite beds – straightforward emergency overnight beds outside the municipal shelter system – would have the option to contract with community or private organizations, including but not limited to religious institutions. This is an unwelcome change for faith-based shelters. “The relationship we created together did not come from a contract drafted by the city,” said Cohen. “It wasn’t a relationship that was created in answer to a city request for proposals.”
George Nashak, deputy commissioner for policy at the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), says the agency’s goal is to improve services at faith shelters and drop-in centers, which are by law subject to a renewed RFP process at the end of the current contract period. DHS has targeted for closing shelters that are located far from the drop-in centers and those open fewer than five nights a week, but also plans to fund up to 450 respite beds in the coming fiscal year. These would include so-called “faith beds” in churches and synagogues. Along with 500 planned slots in the Safe Haven program (transitional housing for the chronically homeless) and 150 stabilization beds (temporary rooms for people in the process of procuring permanent housing), DHS says it will have 1,100 beds available next year—a 66 percent increase over current capacity.

Some advocates for the homeless see a very different picture. On Monday the advocacy group Coalition for the Homeless released a report criticizing the DHS proposals, saying they would make it harder for homeless people to access services. According to the analysis, the plan for fiscal 2010 actually reduces overnight capacity for street homeless beds by 51 percent. The Coalition’s tally takes into account proposed changes to the city’s nine drop-in centers, which serve as points of access to counseling and medical services, and serve as de facto shelters. (It also ignores proposed increases in Safe Haven beds.) DHS records show that last Thursday, Nov. 20, 570 people slept in drop-in centers and 319 in faith beds, out of a total of 6,478 single adults staying in city shelters that night. Under the DHS plan, no one will sleep at drop-in centers. Currently open 24/7, these centers would cut back to a daytime schedule, except in emergencies caused by extreme heat or cold.

Nashak says that the drop-in centers were never meant to become permanent shelters, and are unequipped to handle regular overnight guests. “We’re totally uncomfortable with people sleeping in folding chairs,” he said. “It’s unacceptable, it’s unhealthy, and we can do better.” Still, demand for a metal chair in a safe place remains strong. Last Tuesday, one of the first bitter evenings of the season, men and women lined up for a chance to sleep in Mainchance, a drop-in center for the homeless on Lexington Ave. and 32nd Street in Manhattan. At six o’clock in the evening a security guard broke the news: “There’s no more room. You’ll have to clear out. No standing on the steps.”

A man named Michael hoisted his duffel bag, draped a woolen blanket over his head, and went to wait across the street. He knew that some people inside would be assigned a bed in a church shelter, leaving a few seats open once their transportation arrived. “It’s like a bunch of heroin addicts,” he said of the shelter crowd. “You know, the dealer won’t let them stand on his stoop, so they hide out around the block, and when the dealer opens the door again they rush in, like a swarm.”

Nashak said that under the revised shelter plan, the drop-in centers will be able to focus their energies on becoming more effective service hubs. Those who simply need a place to stay, and not additional mental health or drug addiction services, will be referred to respite beds. However, some members of Partnership worry that the city’s emphasis on reducing chronic homelessness—the condition of living on the streets for a year or more—will diminish services for people who are temporarily down on their luck. “Our guests are usually men in transition,” said Leilani Davis, a volunteer coordinator at the Holy Trinity Homeless Shelter on the Upper East Side. “The city helps them find housing, and some come back [once they’re housed] and become our most loyal volunteers. If you have a job and you’re trying to climb your way up, and you get nothing, that’s crazy.”
Shelter volunteers are also on edge about DHS plans to cut the transportation budget: Rather than busing homeless adults to church shelters, drop-in centers would provide clients with MetroCards to reach their destination. The elimination of bus service raises the possibility that shelter volunteers would have to deal with clients coming in at all hours, rather than on one bus.

Although the concept papers invite the public to voice such concerns, officials have complained about inadequate notice of the proposed changes. “The city should stop this process now and meet with folks like us, the faith community, to understand the depth and quality of the service that we provide,” said Cohen. Partnership members are now bringing their case directly to the mayor, through petitions and protests that will likely intensify through the end of the year.

“I think the mayor, as a practical businessman, is failing to see that he’s throwing away all the donations of time and energy these shelters provide, as well as the human caring you can’t bid for through an RFP,” said Davis, from the Holy Trinity shelter. “He might not be aware that we’re a natural resource.”

– Lindsey McCormack