Ending Homelessness

By Ted Houghton

Ten years ago, Bob Kalinski lived in the train tunnels below Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Addicted to cocaine and amphetamines for 29 years, he personified the city's homeless crisis, spending his days collecting cans for money and isolated from the world.

But in 1996, a death on the tracks prompted an intensive outreach effort to Kalinski and his fellow tunnel dwellers. He'd already gotten sober -- "kind of a monastic trip I was on," he says -- and when he was offered an affordable apartment at Holland House on 42nd Street, he was glad to take it.

Operated by the nonprofit organization Project Renewal, Holland House is a permanent supportive housing residence that provides on-site social services to formerly homeless or housing-needy tenants. According to staff there, Bob Kalinski had already had a heart attack, had dangerously high blood pressure and was in desperate need of basic medical care. Visiting doctors and nurses helped him get his health back, while counselors helped get him qualified for disability benefits. Almost six years later, he's still sober, healthy, and a favorite at Holland House, helping out whenever and however he can. "What they did is pretty amazing: they helped me get my dignity back."

In the last decade, success stories like Bob Kalinki's occurred all over New York, made possible by the transformation of New York City's once infamous shelter system into a network of model programs run by nonprofit service providers. Years of litigation and public outrage over homelessness drove the city to create an elaborate, multi-agency system of shelters, transitional services and housing programs that serve a wide variety of special needs. The system that resulted has returned tens of thousands of once-homeless individuals and families to rewarding lives in permanent housing.

And yet for all of these very real successes, this week the New York City municipal shelter system slept over 28,000 people, approaching the all-time high set in 1987. More troubling, homeless New Yorkers are applying for emergency shelter at a rate 30 percent higher than that of last year.

The extremely tight rental housing market and the recent economic downturn have certainly contributed to this new crisis. But the city's dramatic cutbacks in housing creation for homeless families and individuals has been an even more important factor. The city achieved a substantial reduction in the homeless shelter population in the early 1990s by making a concerted, sustained effort to create affordable housing for homeless people. During those years, the city created an average of 1,500 units a year for homeless families. In the past nine months, the city has created only 117.

The decrease in housing production for homeless people has been justified as a necessary part of balancing the city's budget. But the shortsighted policy of allowing homelessness to remain at crisis levels is an equally costly proposition.

The budget of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) exceeded $450 million last year. Millions more are spent by other government agencies on parallel systems of emergency shelter for over a thousand people living with AIDS, almost two thousand homeless people residing in private, church-based shelters or domestic violence shelters, and another 1,200 households in temporary lodgings for families who have been burned out of their homes. The lack of coordination between these different systems and the agencies responsible for housing, health and welfare result in a variety of service gaps and duplicative efforts. In all, 22 city, State and federal agencies spend over $800 million providing shelter, services and housing to over 100,000 different homeless New Yorkers each year.

"It's shameful that, twenty years after homelessness became a crisis, most of the public money spent on homelessness still goes toward expensive, emergency measures, instead of permanent solutions," says Maureen Friar, the executive director of the Supportive Housing Network of New York, an umbrella group of nonprofit supportive housing providers. "We've been working on this problem a long time. We know what works. The city needs to use this knowledge to create and implement a coordinated, long-range plan to end homelessness."

THE BLUEPRINT TO END HOMELESSNESS IN NEW YORK CITY

To help make this happen, we at the Supportive Housing Network have united with two other trade groups that represent nonprofit shelter and service providers to homeless single adults and families, the Association of Service Providers to Homeless Adults (ASPHA) and the Tier II Coalition. Representing over 150 nonprofit organizations that serve homeless New Yorkers, the three groups have joined together to create "The Blueprint to End Homelessness in New York City," a four-page document that outlines the basic elements of a plan to change the way the city government responds to the homeless problem.

These elements include preventing homelessness before it happens; expanding the supply of affordable housing; providing community-based services to help people gain access to that housing; and finally, developing a long-range plan that will make ending homelessness the overriding goal of the city's homeless policy.

PREVENTION

The Blueprint effort begins with prevention: "The first component of any plan to end homelessness has got to be helping people before they show up at the shelter door," says Scott Auwarter, of the Citizens Advice Bureau, a Bronx-based nonprofit involved in drafting the Blueprint. "But the annual funding for homelessness prevention is just a fraction of what the City spends on shelters in a month."

According to Auwarter, anti-eviction teams operated by non-profit agencies divert thousands of families from the shelters by negotiating payment plans with landlords, securing emergency payments for unpaid rent and linking families to needed services. Expanding these teams to other neighborhoods will prevent many more families from becoming homeless, at little additional cost. Restoring publicly funded staff attorneys representing tenants in housing court will also restore the checks and balances of the eviction process. "The present administration cut Bronx Legal Services staff from 22 attorneys to just three last year. It's easy to predict the result -- more homeless families."

Another prevention strategy involves targeting rent subsidies to families and individuals at risk of becoming homeless. According to Auwarter, "The Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption is a great example of a low-cost program that keeps people in their homes and out of the shelters by giving landlords tax abatements in lieu of rent increases. If expanding eligibility to include low-income disabled people prevents just a couple of thousand people from entering the shelter system in a year, the savings in shelter costs alone will pay for the program."

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Many of the Blueprint organizers have also been involved in the Housing First! affordable housing campaign, which calls for the doubling of the city's current capital housing budget. The Housing First! plan would build 100,000 units of permanent affordable housing and preserve 85,000 more over the next ten years. Supported by a broad array of nonprofit and private housing developers, clergy, banks, community-based organizations, tenants and landlords, Housing First! has already pushed the larger issue of affordable housing to the front and center of the mayoral campaign.

"Over the last ten years, we've developed many successful shelter-based rehab programs that have helped a lot of people get their lives back, but it's an endless cycle unless we attack the underlying causes of homelessness: the lack of affordable housing," says Fred Shack of HELP USA, a nonprofit transitional and permanent housing provider and a leader of the Tier II Coalition. "If the housing was out there, we could move half of the families out of the shelters tomorrow."

The Blueprint organizers say that ending homelessness will not be possible without a capital budget investment in housing like the one Housing First! envisions. But they are quick to point out that more than housing is required. Thanks in part to the Blueprint organizers' involvement, the Housing First! platform calls for the creation of 16,000 units of supportive housing to ensure that people with special needs will have the on-site social services necessary for them to succeed in housing.

BETTER COORDINATION OF SERVICES

In addition to emphasizing the importance of services, the Blueprint also argues for better coordination of city agencies' homeless programs, most notably through the appointment of a "homeless czar" working from City Hall who would be able to compel agencies with different agendas to cooperate with each other to end homelessness.

As an example of how better coordination combined with more housing can make a difference, the Blueprint organizers cite the New York/New York Agreement to House Homeless Mentally Ill Individuals of 1990. A joint effort between the New York City and New York State governments, the New York/New York Agreement funded nonprofits to build over 3,000 units of service-enriched housing for homeless people with psychiatric disabilities, and spurred the creation of thousands more supportive housing units for other homeless and housing-needy individuals.

At its conclusion in the mid-1990s, the New York/New York Agreement and its related housing initiatives had helped reduce the number of single adults in the municipal shelter system from an all-time high of 9,678 per night in 1987 to an average of 6,106 per night in 1994. While these reductions substantially reduced shelter costs for the city, they were only part of the extraordinary savings experienced by a number of publicly funded systems as a direct result of the housing initiative.

A recent University of Pennsylvania study of the New York/New York Agreement documents how it would cost just under $1,000 more per year to house a homeless mentally ill individual in a supportive housing residence with on-site services than it currently costs to allow the same person to remain homeless and depend on expensive emergency shelter and a patchwork of psychiatric and medical services.

"The Penn study confirmed what we already knew," says Laura Tavormina of the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing, "It's more humane and less expensive to provide services to people in permanent housing rather than in shelter and other institutional settings." According to its supporters, the Blueprint plan will build on this knowledge by applying the supportive housing approach to homeless families. Four pilot programs providing supportive services to formerly homeless families in permanent housing have shown great success. By helping families with special health and mental health needs avert crises so that they don't return to the shelters, the Blueprint supporters expect to sharply reduce the number of families cycling in and out of the system, thus reducing the current, overwhelming demand.

LONG-RANGE PLANNING

Since the reductions in the shelter population in the early 1990s, there have been dramatic cuts in both the production of permanent housing and in programs to prevent homelessness. Not surprisingly, the shelter system has expanded significantly to meet the need. Today, over 7,000 single adults sleep in the shelters each night and for the first time ever, the number of homeless children in New York now exceeds 11,000. Families have been especially hard hit, as the average shelter stay now hovers around 11 months.

But improved outreach efforts, safer shelters and more aggressive police tactics have kept the number of homeless people living in New York's public spaces noticeably lower than a decade ago. As a result, homelessness has rarely been mentioned in the current mayoral campaign. Without the most visible manifestation of homelessness keeping the issue in the public eye, can a Blueprint to End Homelessness get the attention and support it needs to be successful?

Blueprint supporters say yes. "Regardless of what happens in the campaign, whoever wins is going to have to implement a long-range plan to end homelessness," says Anne Teicher, the executive director of the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, a nonprofit drop-in center and housing provider on Manhattan's Upper East Side, "The social and economic costs of continuing to shelter so many people are too high to ignore."

The success of efforts to improve the shelter system and create new models of permanent housing for people with special needs have set the stage for the final step in the process: a coordinated, comprehensive initiative to end street homelessness and sharply reduce the need for all types of emergency shelter. The expertise gained over the past twenty years presents an unrivaled opportunity for change.

The effort to end homelessness has become a national phenomenon over the past year, with similar efforts under way in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Columbus, and other cities across the United States. "In the end, it's all about planning for the next ten years, rather than continuously reacting to a perpetual emergency," says Friar. "If the only way people can get services or appropriate housing is by entering the shelter system, then that's where they'll go. By making an initial investment in prevention, permanent housing and community-based services, we can si gnificantly reduce the size and costs of the shelter system. Best of all, individuals, families and children won't have to endure the ordeal of homelessness."

Ted Houghton is a writer and consultant for the Supportive Housing Network of New York and Housing First! He was formerly the Director of Housing and Program Placement for the New York City Department of Homeless Services.

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