“Don’t Forget Shelters’ Role in Homelessness Crisis”

In New York City, 50,000 people live in emergency shelters. To address this issue, each mayoral candidate has illustrated their plans to expand the affordable housing stock. However,  they have yet to divulge their plans to improve shelter policies. Hannah Biskind, a Legal Advocate at the Urban Justice Center‘s Safety Net Project, published an article Friday in City Limits deconstructing the ways in which the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) perpetuates homelessness and the need to revamp shelter practices.


Don’t Forget Shelters’ Role in the Homelessness Crisis        by Hannah Biskind

On April 10th, former Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Commissioner Robert V. Hess published an article in City Limits calling on New York City’s next mayor to address the City’s growing homelessness crisis. In his piece, Mr. Hess touts the work of his former organization, DHS, and argues that the next mayor must utilize multiple city agencies to provide better access to shelters and an exit strategy out of the cycle of homelessness.

He asks a good question.  What is the next mayor going to do about homelessness? He asks the same question ringing in my head. As a Legal Advocate at the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project, I work with homeless families every day and I worry about what this next mayoral election means for my clients. I have yet to hear or read anything from mayoral candidates regarding this issue, yet over 50,000 of their constituents are in emergency shelter.  And even more families who should qualify for emergency shelter are thrown back out on the streets every day by DHS.

I agree with Mr. Hess’s statement that homelessness needs to be a campaign issue.  But let’s address the ways that DHS can make the needs of homeless families a priority, as well.  Homelessness is the result of multiple failures in the system, such as the lack of affordable housing and living wage jobs.  But that does not let DHS off the hook and negate DHS’s responsibility in this current crisis.

I agree that the solution to homelessness lies in a citywide, multi-agency effort.  I agree that affordable housing and the creation of a new city housing subsidy program should be of top priority.  I agree that we need more living-wage jobs. Yet, while DHS does not control affordable housing and living-wage jobs, it does contribute to the number of street homeless families that are left out of DHS’s shelter census every night.

I work with families everyday as they apply and try to enter the emergency shelter system.  While the initial reasons my clients have nowhere to go does not directly implicate DHS, the reasons my clients must apply for shelter time and time again does.  These families seek out my help because, after providing what documentation they have of their required one- to two-year housing history, DHS has denied them emergency shelter.  While Mr. Hess is somehow able to compare the shelter system to both the Marriott and the hospital emergency room, I have sat next to my clients time and time again as DHS tells them that no, they will not get the help they need from the shelter system.  New York City’s right to shelter for its homeless population dates back to the 1980’s but homeless families must prove that they must have nowhere else to go.  I listen to DHS tell my clients over and over again that they do have somewhere to go, that they are not really homeless despite compiled evidence to the contrary.

DHS does not meet its legal and moral obligation to house every single individual and family that is truly homeless.  I have seen it with my own eyes.  And if we are going to address homelessness in New York City and do our best to transition our homeless population into stable, permanent housing, then DHS must uphold its moral and legal obligation to provide shelter to homeless families who have the legal right to emergency shelter.

Stable shelter is the first step for our already homeless New Yorkers and providing that is DHS’s responsibility.  I agree with Mr. Hess that the next mayor needs to address the issue of homelessness in New York. But in doing so, the next mayor must understand how existing DHS policies are actually contributing to our city’s crisis of homelessness.

Reforming these policies, in addition to expanding affordable housing and living wage job opportunities, is an imperative if our city is to truly deliver on its constitutional promise of shelter for all.

To read the article on City Limit’s website, click here.


Needed: New Mayor to End Homelessness in NYC

homelessness nyc 2

Rates of homelessness in New York City are still rising. As of January 2013, Coalition for the Homeless reported that 50,100 people were homeless. Of  those who were homeless, 12,000 were families and 21,000 were children. These statistics illustrate the highest rates of homelessness since the Great Depression.

Since Mayor Bloomberg took office in January of 2002, 61 percent more folks are sleeping in shelters.   And beyond these statistics, thousands more are sleeping in public spaces, including subways, park benches, and sidewalks, each night.

Many attribute the heightened rates of homelessness to Bloomberg’s unwillingness to target the root causes of poverty. Throughout Bloomberg’s 11 year tenure, he has notoriously implemented band aid fixes by funneling more money into the shelter system while simultaneously cutting programs like Work Advantage. City Limits cited that since January of this year, the Department of Homeless Services has created 12 new homeless shelters, costing the city $722M. These costs are exorbitant and unnecessary. To save money and lessen rampant poverty, deviating from Bloomberg’s ‘crisis management’ tactics is imperative.

In the same City Limits article, the increase in homelessness is also attributed to the increase in eviction rates. West Bronx Housing, a community-based non-profit that works with tenants to prevent unnecessary evictions, has witnessed this increase firsthand. Between the months of July and October in 2010, West Bronx Housing supported 137 tenants battling eviction. Exactly one year later, they supported 240 tenants battling eviction. While the study’s sample size is small, the figures offer a snapshot of multiplied homelessness in recent years.

Many of the evictions are correlated to the loss of jobs as well as cuts in public benefits. Last week, the New York State Department of Labor released new data stating that 9.9 percent of New York City residents are currently unemployed. This statistic is even higher than unemployment rates from one year ago. Additionally, a major blow to housing in New York was when the City cut the Advantage program last year.  According to the NY Times, the program benefited 15,000 families by providing them stable housing in private multi-family buildings.  With the elimination of this program, many of these families were forced to return to the shelter system. We need new tactics that prevent homelessness and permanently remove people from the shelter system.

With an upcoming mayoral race, we are looking forward to a new mayor who will radically change Bloomberg’s homeless strategies.  A few of the candidates have already offered their ideas. Speaker Christine Quinn, a longstanding proponent of affordable housing, is hoping to reopen lists for federal housing programs, such as Section 8 (there has been a freeze for years), as well as create more rental assistance programs to support folks as they leave the shelter system. Alternatively, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio would like to reinstitute the Advantage program and use city pension funds to create new affordable housing.  As Bloomberg’s tenure ends and a new mayoral term begins, New York has an opportunity to reconstruct homeless intervention programs and expand affordable housing. Stay tuned for more about mayoral candidates’ plans for much needed affordable housing in our city!

Landlords Profiting in Homelessness

Photograph by the New York Times
Photograph by the New York Times

According to the New York Times, the homeless population in New York City has risen to 47,216 this month  — a 30 year high. Of the city’s homeless population, 20,000 are children. As the number of homeless folks increases, the number of unoccupied shelters decreases. To accommodate the growing homeless population, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has implemented a new tactic.

The DHS is paying for-profit developers $3,000 per unit to house homeless folks. Nearly half of the funds go to the landlord, while the other half is meant for security and social services. The DHS stipulates that landlords use the money to address mental health and substance abuse concern.  To address these concerns is to combat the roots of poverty.

Alan Lapse is one of the many for-profit developers that is housing the homeless. Initially, Mr. Lapse provided housing to many low-income tenants living on the Upper-West Side. After learning about DHS’s program, he changed his business practices.  To turn a better profit, Mr. Lapse began offering current tenants $25,000 in cash to vacate their apartments.  Many tenants in the building accepted Mr. Lapse’s offer. Now, he owns 20 of the 231 homeless shelters citywide.

Willy Machan, a tenant in one of Mr. Lapse’s buildings, was wary of his landlord’s offer. While Mr. Lapse offer seemed profitable, Mr. Machan recognized that the lack of housing stock in New York City has significantly depleted.  Therefore, finding a new, reasonably priced apartment would prove challenging.

The Coalition for the Homeless claims that lack of affordable housing is the main cause of homelessness in New York City. As landlords recognize the lucrative incentives of the DHS program, they have abandoned their affordable housing developments, causing the affordable housing stock to continue dwindling. With less access to affordable housing, homelessness continues to rise. Therefore, DHS’ program is perpetuating, rather than alleviating, homelessness.

While the incentives of DHS’ program address the imminent needs of the homeless population, they also perpetuate the root cause the problem — lack of affordable housing. To end the cycle of poverty, rethinking the program’s incentives are imperative.  Additionally,  the city must better prioritize homeless folks when allocating public housing as well as Section 8 vouchers.  From an ethical standpoint, the DHS program calls into question the implications of profiting from the struggles of homeless folks. While the DHS development program is well-intentioned, the city must redefine their tactics to better address the needs of the population that it supports. To end homelessness, providing affordable housing is necessary.

What’s Going to Happen with Work Advantage?: Enter Round Three!

There’s a fight going on, and no one is ready to back down.  It’s between New York Legal Aid (on behalf of participants of the Work Advantage Program) and the City of New York, specifically the Department of Homeless Services.  As you may be aware, the city has cut funding for Work Advantage, a program which assists in the participants’ transition from temporary homeless shelters.  Through the program, participants pay a portion of their rent and the city pays the rest, directly to the landlord.  In order to qualify for the program, participants must meet certain requirements such as an income maximum and need to work at least 20 hours a week at minimum wage or above.

The question Legal Aid won’t drop is whether the city can legally cut the program and cease to pay current participants’ rents, or if it had entered into a legally binding contact with the participants and the landlords to continue paying rent for the remainder of the lease.  The city has argued several times that, no, there was no contractual agreement.  They claim the program was simply a social benefit program that could be dropped at any time.  Legal Aid disagrees.  And the fight continues…

It isn’t hard to understand how messed up cutting Work Advantage is.  New York City’s most vulnerable populations living in homeless shelters benefitted from the program by leaving the shelter system and getting back on their feet.  They were guaranteed that if they found an apartment in their price range, the city would subsidize it for one at least one year, and two if they continued to qualify. Cutting the program will lead to countless evictions, forcing this population right back into the shelters.

In addition, it is widely known that the shelter system is overcrowded, inefficient, and expensive.  Cutting funding for Work Advantage to bring more into the shelter system is not an efficient use of resources –  it is more expensive to maintain the shelters than to pay subsidies.  According to Steve Banks, attorney-in-chief for Legal Aid,

This certainly seems like a case in which the city loses when it wins, since it will have to pay far more to shelter these families and individuals than by continuing to make the rental payments.

Another consequence of program cuts is that when landlords stop receiving city money and begin evicting tenants, they will lose a significant amount of  money needed to maintain the building and pay back their mortgage.  This result increases the likelihood of foreclosure, impacting not only the remaining tenants but also the rest of the neighborhood.

Legal Aid appealed for a third time this past week, and is awaiting an expedited court decision.  Again, their argument is that the city entered into a legally binding contract with the Work Advantage participants and the landlord guaranteeing they will pay a portion of the rent for one to two years.  They argue, among other points, that:

  • It has been argued that the program merely provides social benefits, but city this is not sufficient because the city enters into social benefit contracts with other programs. (page 9)
  • A contact involves an offer, and acceptance of the offer, and a provision of terms.  Participants signed “an agreement,” which is an understanding of terms (also signed by the landlord and a representative from DHS).  The agreement stipulates that the city will pay a portion of the rent directly to the landlord for at least one year every month, and two years if the participant qualifies. (page 8)
  • In exchange for guaranteed rental payments by the city, landlord ceded control of who lives in a Work Advantage apartment to the city. If a landlord is forced to evict a Work Advantage tenant, the landlord has two options.  He must agree to return money paid by the city after the eviction or house someone else that the city places from Work Advantage for the remainder of the lease.  This agreement cedes responsibility for who is living in the apartment to the city, therefore entering the city into a contract with the program. (page 17)

To learn more about Work Advantage tenant’s legal options, see Legal Aid’s handout in English or Spanish.  And stay tuned for more information on the upcoming court decision!