When the budget ax falls on social programs, adherence to the wisdom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is often the first casualty. But even veteran social service workers were caught off guard by cuts in the budget Gov. Paterson unveiled last month, which included the elimination of a program to help low-income New Yorkers stay in their homes and out of the costly shelter system for the homeless.
The state expects to save $5 million by axing the Homelessness Prevention Program, which connects embattled renters to everything from legal advice to one-time emergency payments for rent arrears. HPP providers, under contract from the state, also serve as a gateway to a major rent subsidy for families on public assistance, the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement, or FEPS. Unique to New York City, FEPS helps families that receive welfare to cope with the city’s high rents. In 2008, 6,680 households received eviction prevention services through HPP, the vast majority of which – about 6,000 households – used FEPS to meet their monthly rent.
“This cut is going to blow a hole in what is left of the social safety net,” said Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief at the Legal Aid Society. FEPS emerged out of a 1987 Legal Aid Society suit, Jiggetts v. Dowling, which advocated for a higher rental allowance on behalf of welfare recipients. (For previous coverage of the transition from the Jiggetts subsidy to FEPS, see City Limits Weekly #485, May 16, 2005, No More Jiggetts? State Launches Rent Subsidy.) Currently, the monthly rental allowance for a family of four on public assistance is $450; FEPS brings the total to $900.
On the heels of Paterson’s budget announcement, the city’s Department of Homeless Services reported the highest tally of families sleeping in homeless shelters since the city began counting in 1982. If the program that administers FEPS disappears, advocates warn, thousands more could face eviction and end up in the shelter system. “Foreclosures are going up, evictions are up. Why eliminate this program now, when it’s needed most?” asked Christine Roland, director of Housing and Homelessness Prevention at the Queens Community House.
Roland and other HPP providers argue that the cost of rental subsidies—and the programs to administer them— pales by comparison to the cost of municipal shelter. A one-year stay in a services-rich family shelter costs more than $36,000 per family, whereas the annual cost of eviction prevention and the FEPS subsidy is around $6,000.
Nancy Maldonado, a single mother of four, is certain her family would have ended up in city shelter if it weren’t for the help she receives from the Citizens Advice Bureau. Her income as a coordinator for a tutoring company doesn’t cover expenses, and FEPS enables her to pay $822.30 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in the Bedford Park area of the Bronx. She still owes rent arrears, however, and a “sanction,” or penalty, placed on her public assistance record freezes those back payments, putting her family in danger of eviction once again.
“My children were scared. I had a family meeting to let them know what was happening, so they wouldn’t be surprised if something came up,” Maldonado said last week from a waiting room at a public assistance office, where she had appeared armed with paperwork to fight the sanction. Her HPP caseworker helped prepare her for the meeting, and also gave her letters to present to a housing court judge. “I told her that I didn’t want to become homeless or go to a shelter,” Maldonado said. “Public assistance is not helping. They do things in error. If [my caseworker] hadn’t been there to provide the HPP letters, I’d probably be homeless.”
FEPS funding, which comes from federal, state, and city streams, is unaffected by state budget cuts. But most applications are processed by HPP caseworkers whose jobs are on the chopping block. The five HPP providers in New York City—CAMBA, Catholic Charities, Citizens Advice Bureau, Queens Community House, and the Northern Manhattan Improvement Coalition—have offices in welfare centers across the city, and work closely with caseworkers from the Human Resources Administration, the city welfare agency. The Citizens Advice Bureau alone employs 25 caseworkers to staff its eviction prevention program, which administered 2,700 FEPS grants to Bronx families last year.
Connie Ress, a spokeswoman with the Human Resources Administration (HRA), said she didn’t know if welfare recipients would be able to send their FEPS application directly to the government in the future. Currently, families must apply through one of the nonprofits licensed to complete the lengthy form. HRA hopes that current providers will continue to administer the program free of charge. “This isn’t about people not getting rent, it’s about nonprofits not getting a fee to submit applications,” Ress said. “I assume they’ll continue to help people.”
The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which oversees both HHP and FEPS, is making a similar assumption. “The governor’s budget continues to fund the needed rent supplement programs in New York City which help house homeless families and keep families from being evicted. These programs are similar to rent supplement programs that are operated in other social services districts,” OTDA spokesman Michael Hayes said today. “However, in these other districts, the outreach and eligibility services for these are provided by the local social services district and are not paid for or contracted out by New York State OTDA. The rent supplement programs in NYC must be a shared responsibility between the city and the state. The state will help to continue to fund the assistance and benefits of these programs and the city must provide the outreach and eligibility services for these programs.”
HRA did not comment on how it views the suggestion of a “shared responsibility” in a time of dramatic city budget cuts to match the state’s massive reductions.
More Litigation Ahead?
Not everyone in homeless services would mourn the loss of the Homelessness Prevention Program. Ralph da Costa Nunez, director of the Institute for Children and Poverty, argues that young homeless families are often better off in city-run transitional housing, where they can access job training, child care, and health services under one roof. “Service providers are concerned because they want to help families, but this is a Band-Aid,” said Nunez, who served as deputy director under Mayor Koch for the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services. “Families in trouble today will be in trouble tomorrow. Prevention money just postpones the inevitable.”
The city’s Department of Homeless Services would not comment on the elimination of the state-run Homelessness Prevention Program. However, in an interview with City Limits in September, DHS Commissioner Robert Hess said that he considered HRA programs—which include eviction prevention and the FEPS subsidy—an integral part of homelessness prevention efforts. DHS administers its own prevention program, HomeBase, which is targeted to families that have already come in contact with the shelter system. HomeBase, however, is dwarfed by HRA rent subsidies, which accounted for nearly 84 percent of total homelessness prevention spending in 2007, according to the Independent Budget Office.
If the elimination of HPP caseworkers causes the application process to grind to a halt, the door for new FEPS cases could shut as soon as April 1, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year. “They must not realize how many poor tenants rely on FEPS to stay in their homes,” said Kenneth Rosenfeld, legal director at the Upper Manhattan Improvement Coalition, another HPP provider.
State officials say there has been no mistake. “The budget this year obviously involved many difficult decisions. They were considered very carefully,” said Jeffrey Gordon, spokesman for the state Department of Budget. “We examined all programs that were not mandated by state or federal law.”
The Legal Aid Society is prepared to argue that FEPS is indeed a mandated program, the product of a Supreme Court ruling on the state’s obligations to welfare recipients. “It does little good to have emergency grants exist on the books if the not-for-profit and legal services programs that help families get assistance they need are eliminated,” said attorney Banks. The legal organization is considering further litigation if the budget cuts proceed as planned.