Thousands of families teetering on the brink of homelessness before the coronavirus hit New York City now face even more peril as an economic shutdown triggers unprecedented unemployment — a devastating development for people living paycheck to paycheck.
Without serious intervention, policy experts and advocates say, the current crisis threatens to fuel an increase in homelessness in a city where more than 114,000 public school students lacked a stable place to stay at some point last year, and where families with children account for the vast majority of New Yorkers sleeping in Department of Homeless Services shelters.
As formal budget negotiations get under way between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council, homeless advocates have outlined a series of long-term priorities and acute coronavirus-related needs they say the city must fund to reverse an historic homelessness crisis that will only get worse, and more deadly.
Their list includes a familiar goal: raising the value of city housing vouchers — subsidies that pay a year’s rent for families experiencing homelessness — to match the actual market rate of a typical New York City apartment. That years-long effort has even more urgency now, says Coalition for the Homeless policy director Giselle Routhier.
“People need housing to stay safe and what doctors and public health professionals are including in their recommendations is ‘home’ — ‘stay home,’” Routhier says. “We have to start thinking of this as an investment in safety, first and foremost.”
Since the coronavirus first began to endanger people experiencing homelessness, advocates began shifting their focus to address the economic impact of the illness, calling on the city to prepare for the end of a statewide eviction moratorium that threatens a surge in families getting kicked out of their homes. They have also urged the city to fund emergency food programs, continue supporting preventive services, reimburse nonprofit providers for expenses and pay to maintain staffing levels at those organizations in the next city budget.
“People need to realize they can become homeless at any time,” says Felix Guzman, an organizer with VOCAL-NY who has experienced homelessness. “That needs to be the reality.”
Raising the value of vouchers
In early April, family shelter provider Win signed a letter to the city detailing the need to raise the value of city housing vouchers —known as CityFHEPS — to match fair market rate, or FMR, a measure commonly used in affordable housing programs. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets FMR in counties across the country, pegs a New York City two-bedroom at $1,951, far lower than what a two-bedroom actually costs in nearly every neighborhood.
But a CityFHEPS voucher for a family of three or four is worth even less than HUD’s conservative estimate. The subsidy currently pays no more than $1,580 per month.
“A crisis always exposes the weakest links,” says Win president Christine Quinn, the former Council speaker. “This program is a weak link.”
The letter, signed by about two dozen other organizations, also called the current vouchers “ineffective as a tool for families seeking to exit” shelters.
The lack of a viable voucher program will “be particularly difficult for the city as shelter entrances increase due to the economic impacts of COVID-19,” the letter continues. The organizations also urged the city to repeal the CityFHEPS work requirements for every applicant — not just people who have lost jobs, as the city has done — and extend the three-month window for securing an apartment.
“The voucher piece is the most critical need,” says Homeless Services United executive director Catherine Trapani.
A majority of councilmembers have already backed a bill to raise the voucher value, and the Council’s response to de Blasio’s preliminary budget proposal included specific support for increasing the subsidy.
“The Council supports a robust rental voucher program, and it continues to be one of its priorities,” says Council spokesperson Juan Soto.
Emergency food and preventive services
An eviction moratorium ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo will prevent landlords from kicking families out of their apartments over the next few months, but advocates worry that the temporary measure has coaxed New Yorkers into underestimating a pending surge in homelessness.
“It’s masking some of the need” for homelessness preventive services, Trapani says.
“I am terrified when the moratorium is lifted that there isn’t a solution for people who have lost jobs,” she adds.
Job loss and the childcare considerations in light of school and daycare closures are straining family resources, and state lawmakers have predicted a “tidal wave” of evictions and new court proceedings when the moratorium ends.
Citizens’ Committee for Children Policy Director Raysa Rodriguez says preventive services are necessary to mitigate “an inevitable spike” in families seeking shelter.
“Given the public health crisis, it’s even more dire,” she says. “Resources have to made available so that once the moratorium lifted, folks don’t flood the door at shelters.”
In addition to stepping up funding for One-Shot Deal emergency grants for families who can’t pay rent or other bills, Rodriguez says the city must provide more funding for jobs programs, childcare and youth services. Already, however, de Blasio has proposed eliminating the Summer Youth Employment Program, which employs 75,000 young New Yorkers for a chunk of the summer.
“How will they ensure families engage in work if schools are out, if childcare centers are closed?” Rodriguez says. “It’s multi-pronged and it’s all necessary to create a matrix of support.”
The state moratorium may prevent legal evictions, but has not stopped people who aren’t on a lease from getting kicked out of the places where they’re staying. Families who live “doubled up” in homes where they do not appear on a lease are already considered homeless, but getting kicked out of last-resort housing hastens a move to shelters or forces dangerous decisions, like moving back in with an abusive ex-partner.
A predicted increase in homelessness is not yet reflected in recent DHS shelter census reports, however. Since March 1, the number of people sleeping in DHS shelters has ranged from a low of 57,121 to a high of 58,451. There were 57,169 New Yorkers staying in a DHS shelter on April 27, according to the city’s most recent report.
But Routhier, from the Coalition for the Homeless, says the surge is coming if the city does not intervene. Her organization has already seen an increase in homelessness based on the number of visitors to its mobile food program, she says.
On April 10, the city gave $25 million to food delivery programs, but Routhier says much more is necessary.
“The economic fallout is extreme,” she says. “We definitely need investments to help meet people’s basic needs.”
Nonprofit providers have continued to provide services for homeless New Yorkers during the state’s “pause” order, they just don’t know if they’ll get paid for many of their expenses.
On April 21, the city’s health and human service COVID-19 response team sent a letter to homeless service providers informing them that the city will only reimburse costs associated with ‘essential work’ dating back to March 22, nearly a month earlier.
The Council, however, has not yet determined what constitutes “essential work,” according to the letter. That means programs like trauma-informed care initiatives, parenting classes and some mental health treatment — seemingly vital during the enforced isolation and public health crisis — may not be considered non-essential and thus go unfunded, Trapani says.
The potential lack of funding has left organizations scrambling. Less city money will force providers to divert cash from staff or other programming and put “the sector that cares for homeless clients into economic precarity,” she says.
“The biggest crunch to the nonprofit service sector is ability to pay staff and keep sites fully staffed,” she continues.
The city has provided time-and-a-half to social service workers, but Trapani called on the city to extend the extra pay to other staff members, like front-desk workers or custodians who clean and sanitize shelters.
“They’re the eyes and ears of these sites and they’re asking them to do something so beyond the call of duty and put themselves at risk,” she says.
Banking on federal help
Several advocates interviewed for this story say federal support is needed to help the cash-strapped city prevent people from losing their homes and to help currently homeless New Yorkers secure a permanent, affordable home.
The mayor’s budget plan managed to protect most existing programs for homeless New Yorkers, despite cutbacks elsewhere, says Rodriguez, from CCC. But it’s far from enough to meet the need.
“Advocacy has been even more important at the federal level to ensure that federal relief dollars can be provided at a local level,” she says.
Trapani, from HSU, also says she gives the mayor “some credit” for sparing DHS in the biggest budget cuts, but urges the city to be creative and utilize federal relief funding to pay for homeless services.
Though the advocates’ demands may seem like a strain to a city in an economic shutdown, they exist in the context of an historic homelessness crisis — the result of decades of disinvestment and dearth of policies that provide or facilitate affordable housing.
Money may be tight for the city, but the crisis is too big — and too likely to grow — without transformative action, says Quinn, the head of Win.
“There’s more children in shelter than there are seats in Madison Square Garden,” she says. “That’s the reality of homelessness before this crisis.”
City Limits’ series on family homelessness in New York City is supported by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and The Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is solely responsible for the content and editorial direction.