Homeless Numbers High Despite Money and Effort

More than four years into a five-year plan to greatly reduce homelessness, officials find the problem a tenacious one.

By: By Lindsey McCormack

Is the city’s ambitious plan to help the homeless showing signs of success or headed toward failure? Administration officials remain optimistic about staying the course, while an array of critiques portray an initiative that is not accomplishing enough, fast enough.

With the end date in sight for the city's five-year plan, launched in June 2004 and called “United for Solutions Beyond Shelter,” many advocates and others are zeroing in on the blueprint's marquee promise to reduce homelessness by two-thirds. That goal won't be met – but Department of Homeless Services (DHS) leaders say numerous other significant improvements to both internal procedures and external service delivery have been achieved.

At a hearing at City Hall on Sept. 23, City Councilman Bill de Blasio, chairman of the General Welfare Committee, grilled DHS Commissioner Robert Hess on the city's progress. At issue was the finding published last month by the Independent Budget Office that the total number of homeless people in New York has decreased little since 2004, even as costs of shelter and prevention programs rise. With less than a year left to go, the total shelter population was 34,401 as of Sept. 25, down from around 36,600 when Bloomberg announced the plan; a two-thirds reduction would put the total shelter population at around 12,100 in 2009.

“This is a watershed moment,” said de Blasio, a Brooklyn Democrat. “We’ll either attack the problem while we have a competent team and a bold goal, or we’ll continue with the pantomime of having a bold goal and doing little to achieve it.”

Facing an onslaught of criticism, the Department of Homeless Services released its own progress report last week, detailing how it has met 86 percent of its goals in a wide range of areas, from overhauling the family intake system to launching a homelessness prevention program in the housing courts. As to why these successes have not translated to vastly reduced numbers of the homeless, Hess said in his testimony, “If we could report today that we were successful at reaching all of our targets, that would mean that our targets are not ambitious enough.”

“I find that downright Orwellian,” de Blasio countered after Hess’s testimony. “You’re letting yourselves off the hook, saying ‘aren’t we noble for setting this unattainable goal.’ We have to level with New Yorkers about what can really be done.”

Putting aside the debate over whether the two-thirds goal should serve as a measure of success or point of aspiration, the hearing hit on two crucial questions—why homelessness in New York City has not fallen as quickly as expected, and whether DHS needs to consider new strategies to pick up the pace. In the current budget-cutting atmosphere, however, new approaches likely would have to be thrifty ones.

In an interview the following day, Hess said that the administration’s emphasis on prevention is already yielding results, even if not in the desired timeframe. “You have to remember, originally this was going to be a 10-year plan, and the mayor said, ‘This is great, but I only have five years left,’” Hess said. “So what was already a stretch became a five-year plan. I think the mayor was right to do that.”

Referring to the Emergency Assistance Unit – the troubled Bronx family intake center replaced by the PATH center a few years ago – he added, “No one who was at the EAU just a few years ago and saw the horrors there—children sleeping on floor, no sink in the doctor’s office, social workers interviewing domestic violence victims in front of other families—no one can see those things and say we haven’t made tremendous progress.”

City Council's review comes as DHS faces strong opposition to its plan to move the adult men’s intake center from the former Bellevue psychiatric hospital, on East 29th Street in Manhattan, to the Bedford-Atlantic Armory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn – and as it enjoys the settlement of a 25-year-old lawsuit against the DHS by the Legal Aid Society (see related story this week). “You settled a lawsuit last week, but now you’re opening a new front of hostility and litigation,” said Councilwoman Letitia James, whose district includes the Armory.

Hess emphasized his department’s progress in targeting adults living on the streets. Responding to suggestions from advocates, DHS has implemented a “street to home” approach that steers the chronically homeless towards stable housing, rather than emergency shelters. In four years, the street homeless population has dropped 25 percent citywide, and 60 percent in Queens, according to the annual HOPE survey – though earlier this year revelations surfaced that some men had been sent to illegal boarding houses. Still, many advocates are supportive. “There’s been a real turnaround,” says Carolyn McLaughlin, executive director of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, a social service organization in the Bronx. “I know of over 80 homeless people who have been put in long-term housing, and most do very well.”

The news is less positive for families with children. According to the Independent Budget Office report, their numbers actually went up between the end of fiscal 2004 and 2008, from 8,712 to 8,848. Over that period the total number of homeless in shelters decreased by 5.3 percent, however, from 36,399 to 34,467. Meanwhile, city spending on family shelter has risen more than $70 million. This is a disappointment for DHS, which has tried to drastically lower the shelter population by boosting prevention services, and by helping those who do enter the shelter system to move quickly into permanent housing.

In its progress report, DHS highlights a two-pronged approach to reducing the shelter population. HomeBase focuses on prevention, with community organizations providing services such as family mediation, rent subsidies and legal assistance. HomeBase works largely with people who have already applied for emergency shelter but may have other housing options. On the housing end, DHS has a suite of Advantage programs—Work Advantage, Child Advantage, Fixed Income Advantage—which offer rental assistance and a savings match program. The first cohort of Advantage recipients will phase out of the program next spring, two years after entering.

At last week’s hearing, de Blasio presented his own Five-Point Plan to reduce family homelessness, which included suggestions to expand anti-eviction services, earmark 10 percent of available Section 8 vouchers for the homeless, and lengthen subsidies for needy families beyond the two years provided by Advantage. Hess said he would consider the suggestions, but told City Limits that the city created its own rental subsidy program in order to provide more flexible and timely service than Section 8 allows.

“We structured Work Advantage to be what families in shelters told us they wanted,” said Hess. “They told us that if they had a couple years to get on their feet, get some work history behind them, save a little money for that rainy day that might come, then they thought they’d be okay.” He added that further assistance is available through HomeBase, and the city would help those needing a long-term subsidy to apply for Section 8.

The underlying question is whether there are enough affordable housing units to accommodate the large population of low-income New Yorkers who may at some point come into contact with the homeless safety net. At Tuesday’s hearing, Zoilo Torres, director of community relations at the Partnership for the Homeless, said that the administration’s emphasis on reducing the shelter population masks a deeper housing crisis. “Essentially, what we’ve done is simply substituted a living room couch in an overcrowded apartment for a shelter bed,” Torres testified. Through its “New Housing Marketplace” initiative, the city has pledged to bring 165,000 new affordable housing units online by 2013; last week Mayor Bloomberg announced the landmark that half those units had been funded. As part of that, the 2005 New York/New York III agreement between Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Pataki provides for construction of 9,000 new units of supportive housing for the formerly homeless.

Hess noted that his colleagues from Boston to Minneapolis are grappling with a surge in families seeking shelter. As opposed to the chronically homeless, this population is squeezed by the economic downturn. “The general consensus is that when people are living on the margins, it doesn’t take much to push them into homelessness—when the price of milk, rent, and utilities all go up, and there’s no increase in income.”

Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice who has informally consulted with DHS, has found that a 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate causes a 0.4 percent increase in homelessness— and unemployment in New York is rising . Still, Culhane said, the city is doing the right thing by focusing on prevention.

“We can’t control the number of people coming to the front door of the shelter system,” Culhane said. “What we can do is help them avoid going through the threshold, or if they do cross in, help them to move on as soon as possible.”

– Lindsey McCormack