‘For every supportive housing slot there are six applications. Nearly 45,000 New Yorkers, including 14,000 children, fill the shelter system. What we need now is the political will to invest in this long-term goal while offering shorter-term pathways to housing.’

Courtesy of Jericho Project

Kingsbridge Terrace, a supportive housing site for veterans in the Bronx run by the Jericho Project.

As Congress is poised to make sweeping economic reforms for families and children in poverty, it’s time to tackle the human indignity of homelessness.  

The need for far-sighted change is felt acutely here in New York, where the rising threat of the Delta variant is choking off the dwindled stream of low-paying jobs. Governor Kathy Hochul gave a welcome boost to the prospect of Emergency Rental Assistance Program relief to renters and landlords, after the Supreme Court dealt a blow to strapped individuals who now can’t submit a sworn statement of COVID-related financial hardship to fend off eviction. 

As an organization that has partnered with dozens of kind, constructive landlords who willingly provide affordable housing to veterans, young adults and families, we sympathize with a landlord’s financial exposure.

At the same time, we have seen plenty of families who have been evicted unfairly, often with children in tow, to their only option of a shelter. For them, and for the swelling ranks of the most vulnerable homeless New Yorkers, we have a clear and proven solution: permanent, supportive housing.

Known as Housing First, supportive housing eliminates the crisis-mode uncertainty and trauma that can prevent individuals and families from coping with economic and other root causes of homelessness. Residents pay one third of their income to lease their own safe, clean apartment. Then the stability of housing gives people the mental and emotional space to access the critical element of support. Social workers and specialists help them secure jobs, get their kids needed services, and provide counseling to address mental health issues and substance abuse that are often interwoven.

While this requires foresight and funding, the results are robustly beneficial from a taxpayer’s perspective. At Jericho Project, we have built or owned nine supportive housing residences in New York over several decades and this year launched a program successfully placing families in apartments. Our annual operating costs are $15,000 per person, compared to $32,000 for a single shelter, $50,000 for a family shelter, and $168,000 for a jail cell annually.

One of New York’s proudest accomplishments in this realm has been in reducing veteran homelessness through supportive housing—an initiative we have advanced since 2007. On the federal side, this year is the 10th anniversary of Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF), a blueprint for stable housing.

Now it’s time to have a conversation about compassion for our other homeless neighbors.

Who are they? Families struggling with their own or their children’s disabilities. LGBTQ+ young adults who have been banished from their homes.Those who suffer with chronic, untreated health or mental health issues. The many New Yorkers cobbling together two and three jobs but still unable to afford an apartment.

For every supportive housing slot there are six applications. Nearly 45,000 New Yorkers, including 14,000 children, fill the shelter system. What we need now is the political will to invest in this long-term goal while offering shorter-term pathways to housing. Some suggestions:

1) Renew NYC’s commitment to supportive housing. In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s NYC 15/15 Initiative committed to 15,000 units of supportive housing over 15 years. As voters and leaders, we must double down on this promise and we hope that the next mayor will fulfill it.

Already the state has spoken with The Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act that will convert at least half of financially distressed hotels into affordable homes for people who are homeless.

2) Expand a short-term lifeline out of shelters. The federal government’s housing voucher program, Section 8, provides rental assistance but the waitlist can be years. U.S. Representative Ritchie Torres’ proposed Ending Homelessness Act of 2021 aims to make the vouchers available to some 3.5 million by 2025, and to every eligible American within a decade.

3) Streamline interagency coordination to improve existing services. On the city and federal level we need to do a better job of accounting for every homeless person, and ensuring that they are connected to city agencies that best address their needs, from health care to disabilities. Mandate that any agency receiving HUD assistance have a coordinated system for every homeless individual in a shelter or on the street, and utilize technology to get the right information into caring social workers’ hands.

With immediate needs in health, food, safety and economic access, it’s a tall order to fund housing stock for the future. But focusing federal funds on housing is the foundation for bridging these inequities for our most vulnerable neighbors.

Tori Lyon is CEO of Jericho Project, a nonprofit that provides housing and employment, mental health and wellness services to formerly homeless New Yorkers.