City Hall announced a major shakeup in its top human services staff today, as Robert Hess, who has been Mayor Bloomberg’s commissioner of Homeless Services for the past four years, is leaving the job. Hess is taking a position at the Doe Fund, helping run its job training program for homeless individuals. His City Hall replacement: Seth Diamond, the longtime deputy commissioner of the Human Resources Administration (HRA) who’s helped formulate the city’s welfare and food stamps policies.
Diamond is one of the city’s longest-serving policy staffers, having started at HRA during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s first term helping to oversee Giuliani’s restructuring of the city welfare system. “Seth’s experience directing the nation’s largest welfare reform program makes him a great choice to lead the Department of Homeless Services,” said the mayor in today’s official announcement. “Because of his leadership at the Human Resources Administration, this City is providing more assistance to those who need it, while helping more people become self sufficient than at any other time in recent history. Seth’s contributions have made the lives of thousands of New Yorkers better.”
Diamond told the The New York Times today that he hopes to bring to the Department of Homeless Services his HRA policies of “setting high expectations for people, supporting them as they try and reach those expectations, strongly supporting people who go to work, and having some consequences for people who fail to take advantage of some of the opportunities that we make available.
That’s precisely what worries some of the advocates for poor families and the homeless. “Given that we’ve got record homelessness in New York City, the serious need was for a change in direction,” says Coalition for the Homeless senior policy analyst Patrick Markee. “The appointment of Diamond does not send that message.” The new commissioner, he says, “seems to have a philosophy that homelessness is somehow the failure of families and individuals who are homeless. So it’s a troubling thought.”
Until today’s appointment, Diamond’s biggest contribution to the city’s homeless policy was helping to develop the job placement program at the East River Job Center. The center brought together case workers for all of the city’s homeless at one central location – something Markee calls a “mixed bag,” noting it made for long trips for individuals who were living in far-flung corners of the city.
An earlier move by Diamond to centralize the city’s WeCare centers for disability services ran afoul of the courts in 2006, for similar reasons. Diamond also, notes Markee, joined other administration officials last year in testifying in favor of the city’s move to charge rent to homeless shelter residents.
Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies policy analyst Liz Accles, who’s locked horns with Diamond over HRA policies for more than a decade, finds the move similarly worrisome. “Seth Diamond was skilled at limiting access to essential services at HRA,” Accles tells City Limits. “I fear he’s being appointed commissioner to do the same for homeless services.”