The city's PATH center, a few blocks from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, is the entry point for homeless families into the shelter system. Advocates believe the end of the Advantage subsidy program will drive some families who'd escaped the shelters back to PATH.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

The city’s PATH center, a few blocks from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, is the entry point for homeless families into the shelter system. Advocates believe the end of the Advantage subsidy program will drive some families who’d escaped the shelters back to PATH.

After this article was published, the New York City Department of Homeless Services announced that it had ended rental payments for families in the Work Advantage program.

When Lakisha Rogers realized she and her daughter no longer had to live in a homeless shelter, she was ecstatic.

Early last year the Brooklyn mom qualified for the city’s divisive Advantage program – a rental subsidy program of up to two years meant to help working New Yorkers get back on their feet after falling into homelessness. She and her 10-year-old daughter had spent most of the previous year at Saint John’s Place Family Center, a shelter in Brooklyn. The subsidy was her ticket out of there.

“I never thought I would be the type of person who would end up in a shelter,” Rogers says.

Before becoming homeless, Rogers had a decent job working as a customer service representative for an insurance company, making $19 per hour. But the recession led her employer to cut her pay 15 percent and reduce her hours from 40 per week to 30. Within two months she was behind on rent; she was eventually evicted from her home in Bushwick.

“I don’t think my daughter knew that she was in a homeless shelter,” says Rogers. “Her image of homeless is, you know, the person you see on the street or on the train.”

After the Advantage program got her into her current home on 110th Street in West Harlem, Rogers, 30, vowed that she would never allow herself to return to the shelter system.

But as the city looks to pull the plug on Advantage, Rogers isn’t sure she will be able to keep that promise. “I really don’t know how to feel,” Rogers says. “On the one hand I was like: ‘Thank God, I’m out of the shelter.’ Then the flip side of that was: ‘Oh my God. What’s going to happen if the city stops paying?’ ”

In the wake of a state budget cut

The city is discontinuing the subsidy program after the state pulled its share of the funding – approximately $85 million – last spring, when Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature passed an austere budget. The program was a joint subsidy funded by city, state and federal tax dollars.

The city stopped accepting new families into the program in March, and has since been looking to drop those who were already enrolled in the program – a move that threatens to throw the remaining Advantage families back into a shelter system that is as full as it’s ever been and rapidly approaching its breaking point, according to advocacy groups like the Coalition for the Homeless. Since March, the total shelter population has increased steadily by about 3,500 people, reaching 41,000 for the first time.

Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond says he doesn’t believe the sudden increase is connected with the end of Advantage because the city is currently being forced by a judge to continue making payments for the remaining Advantage recipients.

“So, in some senses, Advantage is continuing,” Diamond says.

But advocates disagree, claiming that families in shelter have been cut off from joining the rental assistance program since March and have had no choice but to languish in the shelter system.

Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless, says it’s only logical that the shelter population would increase since shelters are now the only option for many families.

“You’re going to see those increases continue as long as the mayor fails to provide any kind of housing assistance,” he went on to say. After the city moved to cut funding for people already in the program, the Legal Aid Society sued, contending that the city had made a binding commitment to subsidize each client’s rent for the one- or two-year period for which assistance was initially promised.

Next step unclear

A decision in Manhattan Supreme Court in September allowed the city to end the program outright but was quickly appealed by the Legal Aid Society. The city has been paying the subsidy on a month-to-month basis while the appeal is heard, but it is unclear how long this will continue.

Steven Banks, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, says that if the city is allowed to cut off the remaining recipients all at once, it would have disastrous effects on the shelter system, which is already strained. He said Legal Aid isn’t fighting to save the Advantage program, but is instead fighting to get the city to fulfill its commitment to the remaining recipients by continuing to subsidize their rent until their individual agreements with the city expire.

“The problem with the city’s approach is rather than having these families return to the shelter system over time as their lease agreements expire, the city is immediately going to have 11,000 families and individuals on the precipice of flooding the shelter system,” Banks says.

During the budget battle in Albany last year, the city tried to save Advantage from state cuts. The effort having failed, Diamond says the city simply couldn’t afford to continue the program without the contribution from Albany. Since being forced to fund the program by itself, Diamond says the city has had to cough up about $100 million it hadn’t budgeted for.

“I think it was a bad decision to end the Advantage program but I think it’s a very bad decision that city taxpayers, in a time of very limited resources, have to pay for the program,” Diamond says. “If the program had remained the way it was, two thirds of it we would have received state and federal help on. We received none of that, so city taxpayers had to pay the full cost.”

The city has been holding on to a cache of about $15 million it received from the state under the budget. The money, which was appropriated to help the city with one final blast of cash before ending the program, has been sitting dormant until the city and state come to an agreement on how best to spend it.

Markee said the city submitted a proposal to Albany this past fall to use the bulk of the money to pay the Advantage subsidies the court has ordered it to continue paying. He said that until the state approves that proposal, the money would continue to go unused.

“Whatever they eventually choose to do with that leftover money, it will not go toward any new housing subsidy,” he said. “If it’s used at all, the city will basically use it to pay down their costs for continuing the Advantage program under the court orders.”

A second try

The issue of homelessness is one that has plagued Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration since he vowed back in 2004 to reduce homelessness by two-thirds in five years. But instead of reducing the shelter population, the numbers climbed as high as they’ve ever been – partly because of the recession and partly because the plans put forward may have been inherently flawed, according to advocates.

The ambitious plan involved replacing the tried-and-true method of using federal Section 8 housing vouchers with a local subsidy program know at that time as Housing Stability Plus.

Unlike Advantage, HSP was a five-year subsidy program not linked to employment and was restricted to families receiving public assistance. Advocates criticized HSP, even more than Advantage, for a whole host of reasons, and the city pulled the plug after two years when it became clear the program wasn’t working.

In many ways, Advantage was a sort of do-over for Bloomberg. By shortening the length of the subsidy to two years and making employment a prerequisite, the city saw Advantage as a pragmatic approach to dealing with fringe homelessness.

The program required that a household have at least one employed member working at least 20 hours per week with the family paying 30 percent of the rent during the first year of the program. The subsidy would pick up the rest. To qualify for the second year, the working family member needed to work at least 35 hours per week and kick in 40 percent of the rent.

But as the Great Recession began to unfold in 2008, full-time jobs became scarce, especially for those without college degrees. Qualifying for the second year of the program was nearly impossible for many who could only find part-time work.

By October 2009, only about 1,350 out of the 13,000 Advantage households qualified for the second year of the program. Even for those families who did complete the program, staying out of the shelter system was not a guarantee. Once the subsidy ended, and the family had to pay 100 percent of the rent, it usually cost as much as their monthly income. According to city data, the average monthly rent for Advantage families is around $1,000 per month. At the same time, the data shows that the average income for those families is just over $1,100 – making life after Advantage a challenge for many.

Dispute over results

Indeed, while Homeless advocates might be fighting to extend the Advantage program for its remaining participants, but it’s unlikely any of them will miss it after it goes away.

Groups like the Coalition for the Homeless, among others, criticized the Work Advantage program after data showed it failed to reduce the shelter population. In fact, from fiscal 2007 to fiscal 2010, the average daily population of city shelters had increased by about 2,500 people.

What’s more, advocates claim that around 25 percent of Advantage families returned to the shelter system after they completed the program and the subsidy ran out.

Homeless advocates ripped the basic premise of the program’s time-limited subsidy, calling it a “revolving door” that ultimately led people back into the shelter system after providing them with a temporary housing solution. “It’s just fundamentally the wrong approach,” says Markee. “Time-limited subsidies are not the answer to helping homeless families avoid homelessness in the future.”

However, according to the Department of Homeless Services, Advantage was a roaring success that gave some of New York’s neediest a place to live.

“It was a very successful program,” says DHS Commissioner Diamond. “It moved over 25,000 households out of shelter. It linked working with rental subsidies. It sent the right message. It helped people move to self sufficiency.”

Diamond says that the vast majority of Advantage families benefitted from the program and were able to stay out of the shelter system.

“It’s a myth that most families came back [to the shelter system],” he says. “The way that we think is the best way to count that number is to look at the families that completed the program and remained in the community. And if you do it that way, approximately 90 percent did not come back.”

But many advocates take umbrage with the numbers the city touts. The Coalition for the Homeless says the city’s methodology for arriving at a 90 percent success rate is flawed, and they assert that the number of families who did not return to shelter is somewhere between 65 and 75.

”I think DHS is turning the facts on their head,” says Banks, the lawyer from the Legal Aid Society. “The city proposed a flawed program that has resulted in thousands of families returning to the shelter system. The data bares that out.”

Still, even advocates who contend the Advantage program was far from perfect agree it was better than the current alternative – nothing. The city has yet to unveil an alternative plan to assist homeless families exit the shelter system and get on the path to some type of housing.

For now, Rogers, along with 11,000 other families and individuals, faces an uncertain future and the possibility of being forced to return to a crowded shelter system, should the court decide to allow the city to cut off payments for Advantage recipients.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do when this program stops completely,” she says. “Dealing with this has been the toughest thing I have ever faced in my entire life.”