The mayor with Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs and Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond.

Photo by: City Hall

The mayor with Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs and Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond.

Nine years after Mayor Bloomberg proposed a dramatic reduction in the homeless population, there are record numbers of people in the city’s shelters.

Many have blamed the end of the Department of Homeless Services’ Advantage program—a temporary subsidy that got families out of the shelters—responsible for the swelling shelter count.

But according to Sally Dunford, the executive director of a community-based homeless prevention nonprofit in the Bronx, employment instability has had more to do with it than the lack of rental assistance.

The Department of Homeless Services does not release detailed information on why New Yorkers are applying for shelters, making it difficult to pinpoint the reasons behind the current high numbers. The shelter population started to decline after the peak of the financial crisis, but started swelling again in 2008 and has not stopped growing ever since

Every morning for the past 17 years, Dunford has been making the short trip from her Norwood apartment to her office on Bainbridge Avenue, picking up calls from anxious tenants on the brink of losing their homes. She and the four other employees of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Center help local residents deal with housing-related issues to prevent unnecessary evictions. Beginning in 2009, Dunford started noticing an increase in eviction cases and asked her intern to take a closer look to try and understand what was happening.

“In 20 years, I’d never seen this,” Dunford said, astonished by the magnitude of the problem highlighted in the intern’s report.

In 2010, between the months of July and October, West Bronx Housing dealt with 137 eviction cases. During the same period the following year, while most of the news coverage was reporting encouraging recovery figures, their workload had nearly doubled to a record-high 240 cases.

“It doesn’t take much to knock you off,” explains Dunford, who works with residents of Community District 7. The average household in this part of the Bronx, which encompasses Norwood, Bedford Park and Kingsbridge, earns $31,151 a year, or $2,595 a month. More than half of the residents also spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent—meaning their housing cost burden is considered excessive.

The intern’s report found that one eviction out of five had been the result of the loss of a job. The second most common factor was the loss or reduction of public benefit and only less than five percent of the evictions were pinned on the end of the Advantage program.

The results of this small-scale study are impossible to extrapolate to the rest of the city. The only numbers the Department of Homeless Services has agreed to share are the three leading causes that have pushed homeless families to seek shelter. (The department argues that client confidentiality prevents them from getting into any further details.) According to these figures, three in 10 shelter applicants cited “evictions” as the cause of their homelessness, with domestic violence and overcrowding lagging behind.

DHS says that recently, the number of new applicants to shelters has fallen—an optimistic sign.

Assessing a legacy

Ten years after the mayor’s bold promise to dramatically reduce homelessness, the city counts more than 48,000 shelter residents, including 20,000 children—a 24 percent increase since Bloomberg’s speech in 2004. The question is whether the city made good on its plan to move away from a crisis-management approach.

One of Arnold Cohen’s biggest disappointments is the lack of legacy after Bloomberg’s 11-year year tenure. The CEO of Partnership for the Homeless argues that the administration’s failure in implementing a wider homeless policy will be a major challenge for the upcoming mayoral team.

“Bloomberg is leaving office with no structure for his predecessors to build on,” Cohen says. “He might not have been successful, but if he had tried to put in place the groundwork for a large anti-poverty battle, who knows where we would be now.”

DHS Commissioner Seth Diamond strongly disagrees: “That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the plan, to say that it hasn’t worked.”

To him, the ultimate test is the quality of the services provided by his agency. “The numbers reduction we didn’t get the way we wanted for the shelter population, but that was largely attributable to outside factors.

“There’s been a whole fundamental shift in providing a more human, more compassionate, more structured, more supportive setting,” Diamond concluded. “And that wouldn’t have happened without the plan.”

DHS may have done a heroic job managing the homelessness crisis; indeed, it is at this moment providing a roof and bed to more people than live in 12 of New York State’s 62 counties. The question is whether the purpose of the Bloomberg homelessness plan, which was to get beyond crisis management, has occurred. Many believe the shelter numbers suggest it hasn’t—though there’s a spectrum of opinion of what’s to blame, from DHS policies to the legal mandates that the agency has to operate under.

Christy Parque, the executive director of Homeless Services United, a coalition of more than 60 shelter providers in the city, argues that the gargantuan mission Bloomberg gave to homeless services might have gone beyond its reach.

“The mandate of DHS is to provide emergency housing for those in crisis as opposed to resolving the long-term issues that led people to become homeless in the first place,” said Parque. The executive director, who has been advocating on homeless issues for years, believes that the city’s legal obligation to shelter the homeless population has forced DHS to cut spending on services not strictly required under the Callahan ruling.

As a matter of fact, the department had to open at least 12 shelters since January 2012, boosting its expenditures on adult and family shelters to a record-level $722 million. In November Bloomberg responded to this cost increase by adding nearly $43 million to DHS’ shelter budget for families.

According to the Independent Budget Office, which independently analyzes city budgeting, DHS may need another $43 million to accommodate the homeless population this year.

After 2013

Many of the candidates in the race for the mayor’s seat have voiced their disapproval of Bloomberg’s policy on homelessness. But all have yet to come up with specific plans on how they would tackle the problem differently from their predecessor.

Most are in favor of creating more affordable housing, and despite known imperfections and serious shortages in public housing and Section 8 funding, a majority of the candidates also intend to rely on federal housing and rental assistance programs to put an end to the city’s current homeless crisis.

One of the loudest voices on the matter is the current speaker of the City New York Council and democrat politician Christine Quinn.

In February last year, City Council unveiled a plan that would reopen the priority list for federal housing programs to shelter residents, and create a new rental assistance program to help them leave the shelter system. In 2011, she also threatened to sue the mayor’s administration over a policy that implemented stricter requirements on homeless people seeking shelters.

The city’s public advocate Bill de Blasio has said that if elected, he would start by restoring the Advantage program. “I think the fact is that a cynical equation is going on now, because it’s easier to get a funding stream for shelter creation. And that’s an inhumane approach.”

As a former staffer at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, de Blasio’s housing plan revolves around using investments from the city’s pension fund to create more affordable housing.

But whatever the candidates say, Maureen Friar knows that every time a new team enters City Hall, the learning process starts all over again. Maybe that’s a good thing.

“Change lends itself to an opportunity,” she concludes.