“For decades, the government agencies that oversee and fund the supportive housing systems have disregarded the voices and needs of applicants and tenants, and instead prioritized the needs of providers, landlords, and developers.”

David Brand

Supportive Housing Organized and United Tenants (SHOUT) members at a press conference at City Hall announcing their launch in November 2021.

According to the most recent federal data there are more than 35,000 permanent supportive housing tenants in New York City. However, for far too many tenants of supportive housing—that is, housing for individuals or families typically with a serious mental illness—this housing is anything but permanent.

Everyday supportive housing tenants are in courts across New York City, finding themselves defending their right to housing when a non-profit social services provider or landlord (often the same party) litigate to make them homeless. Providers often rely on the blunt force of the legal system to get rent arrears paid, or to deal with tenants they dislike, rather than providing adequate support to help people stay housed.

Importantly, this does not even account for tenants who face the pressures of uninhabitable conditions, inadequate case management or supportive services, or a provider’s failure to adequately accommodate their health or mental health disability, and leave supportive housing and return to homelessness. 

This major deviation from the mission and vision of supportive housing (namely: to safely and stably house people at highest risk of housing instability and homelessness) is increasingly a national trend, though in New York City it is rarely discussed by policymakers or covered by journalists.

Shockingly, neither the state Office of Mental Health nor the municipal Department of Health and Mental Hygiene track evictions by the supportive housing providers that they fund and regulate. They also retain no data as to how many people voluntarily exit supportive housing to re-enter homeless shelters or live unsheltered. When SHOUT has met with officials of these agencies, they have passed the buck, shifting blame to other bureaucracies, rather than taking any accountability for the system they oversee.

The reasons underlying evictions would likely shock the general public given the very purpose of supportive housing. Providers have moved for evictions for reasons that run the gamut from having a cat to the most common reason, falling behind in rent.

In just one single example, a leading New York City non-profit provider has, since the beginning of 2023, filed nearly two dozen eviction cases for late rent, while during the last three months of 2022 they had filed more than 50 eviction cases based on non-pay claims. Although the municipal Department of Social Services does not require filing of an eviction proceeding to assist tenants with an emergency grant to pay rental arrears, supportive housing providers and landlords routinely abuse and weaponize the housing courts—and pay high-priced landlord-side law firms in the process—to evict tenants who are almost universally poor, and typically Black or brown.

While hundreds of supportive housing tenants (if not more) find themselves in housing court at any single time, many others find themselves denied or rejected for placement into supportive housing for, quite literally, any reason a provider comes up with. In realistic terms, this means an individual is made to stay homeless when they could have actually been placed into an apartment.

In fiscal year 2022, the first year for which New York City has tallied data, there were just 16 people placed into supportive housing who had been found eligible while living on the street. Meanwhile, thousands of people remain unsheltered across the five boroughs and find themselves subject to harassment by police and a city policy of sweeping them out of sight.

Individuals with mental illness who are exiting correctional facilities have little chance of avoiding homelessness. Of nearly 500 individuals found eligible for supportive housing while in a correctional facility, only 8—just 1.6 percent of these applicants—were actually able to move into a supportive housing unit. This, even as the state faces a class action lawsuit, filed in 2021 and now involving the Department of Justice, for failure to “provide the community-based mental health housing and supportive services” these individuals need.

In fiscal year 2022, according to DSS, there were 7,426 unique individuals or families who were determined eligible for supportive housing, but just 16 percent of applicants were placed into an apartment.

In a frightening pattern going back years, applicants for supportive housing, across categories and eligibility types, were rejected for reasons that varied from having a history of psychiatric hospitalization, to past involvement with the criminal legal systems, or, in one case, because the applicant “could not understand simple questions.” Often, providers just copy and paste the same denial reasons for different individuals and send those back to the Department of Social Services (DSS) or deny applicants because they need a “higher level of care,” a term of art that lacks a clear or consistent definition.

A brief introduction to how applications for supportive housing are conducted in New York City may be helpful. In short, a community provider of social services—typically a shelter—or a psychiatric hospital submits an application packet to DSS that includes a psychiatric evaluation, a biopsychosocial assessment, a detailed history of homelessness and other documentation.

A social worker that is hired by DSS to carefully review and assess the applications then decides the level of support the applicant needs, and the types of supportive housing the applicant is eligible for. That decision then allows for referrals to be interviewed by a provider for an available apartment. Routinely, however, providers disregard the decision of DSS and reject someone for housing by making a claim, typically based on a brief one-time interview, that an individual needs a “higher level of care.” This practice is completely at odds with the stated goals of supportive housing, and certainly with the general public’s understanding of its purpose.

In fact, many people are rejected for housing for the exact reasons that they are eligible for it. Once a provider rejects an applicant for housing, they inform DSS, who then informs the community agency that completed the application. At no point is an applicant able to discuss a rejection with the housing provider or with DSS, and there is no appeal process or even inquiry about a reasonable accommodation that could make a placement work. Applicants receive no rejection letter, and no documentation explaining a denial. The lack of a paper trail makes for a lack of accountability and transparency for what amounts, very often, to the life and death decision of keeping someone homeless.

Supportive housing providers and lobbyists will often argue that a denial reason does not matter because another eligible person will eventually get an apartment, or that the general underfunding of supportive housing explains specific cases of rejection. These kinds of arguments, in the face of decades of widespread demands for justice for those most marginalized, and decades of fair housing litigation, are preposterous. The specific reason someone is denied access to housing always matters. For individuals who may never get a chance at housing again, it matters all the more, because the consequences are so severe.

Meanwhile, thousands of supportive housing units sit vacant.

On April 20, SHOUT, New York City’s first organization of supportive housing applicants and tenants, launched the Safe, Accountable, and Fair for Everyone (SAFE) campaign. We demand a supportive housing system that lives up to the name.

SHOUT came together two years ago, and, at the end of 2021, won New York City’s first supportive housing tenant bill of rights and a first of its kind annual report that provides data about who is rejected for supportive housing and why providers denied them housing, typically prolonging their homelessness.

Through the SAFE campaign, we are making demands of both government agencies and supportive housing providers. These demands represent the perspectives of supportive housing applicants and tenants who have been universally sidelined in policies and procedures, but who face the consequences of disinvestment, neglect, discrimination, and harassment more intensely than any other stakeholder.

Our demands of supportive housing providers shouldn’t be necessary in 2023, but they are. They must stop discriminating against applicants on the basis of disability, language, race, gender or sexual orientation, including using vague rejection reasons to mask the actual content of a denial. They must provide high-quality repairs and services. They must stop renting from known slumlords. They must stop evicting supportive housing tenants and, instead, support tenants to resolve any issues and maintain their housing.

We are also demanding serious changes at DOHMH and OMH, who have given far too much deference to industry lobbyists and providers on the rules and procedures of the supportive housing systems. These powerful government offices must require that providers follow transparent and fair procedures when making demands of tenants. They must stop contracting with bad actors who repeatedly break housing and human rights laws. They must create a meaningful grievance process and hire adequate staff to investigate and act on the findings.

For decades, the government agencies that oversee and fund the supportive housing systems have disregarded the voices and needs of applicants and tenants, and instead prioritized the needs of providers, landlords, and developers. SHOUT is here to say things must change. Let’s make supportive housing SAFE for everyone.

The authors are member of Supportive Housing Organized and United Tenants (SHOUT).