When he came into office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg admittedly did not consider homelessness a top priority. But in the last 12 months, homelessness and housing issues have gained progressively more attention. The mayor has said ending homelessness in the city is a top priority for his second term, if he wins one. The city’s policies to help homeless people began to shift as homelessness continued to surge
Not every homeless advocate in the city gives the administration glowing reviews. But at the annual conference earlier this month in Washington D.C. of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, those attending from across the nation seemed considerably more impressed as Linda Gibbs, the commissioner for the Department of Homeless Services, and others outlined what they have been trying lately.
Among the changes made in the city, three decisions stand out:
- Ending the use of Section 8 vouchers to pay for housing for homeless people
- Introducing two new rent subsidies to help poor people pay rent
- Enlisting community-based organizations to help prevent homelessness
Turning Shelter Subsidies Into Rent Subsidies
Late last year, the city ran out of Section 8 vouchers, the federal rent subsidy. To hear Linda Gibbs talk about it at the conference, this turned out to be a good thing.
“The housing authority gave us as many Section 8 vouchers as the city needed,” Gibbs said. “We got so good at what we were doing that we used them up. We were creating a draw into the [shelter] system." What she was saying was that because a person in a homeless shelter would be given preference for a section 8 voucher (which could be used to rent a real apartment), and because there were 150,000 people on a waiting list for these vouchers, the city came to believe that an incentive was thus created for people to enter a shelter just in order to get the voucher.
“We made a high-risk decision to de-link Section 8 from homelessness,” she told an audience of workshop participants (meaning stop giving preferences to people who were in shelters). The decision, she believes, paid off. “We saw a 20 percent drop [of the number of people entering homeless shelters] attributed to de-linking.”
The shelter system is very expensive â€“ it costs about $35,000 a year to provide shelter services to a family of four â€“ and that money could be used more effectively to help people pay rent.
With that in mind, the city introduced two new rent subsidies: Housing Stability Plus, whose aim is to increase the number of families leaving shelters for permanent housing, and the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement, which tries to prevent families from losing their housing and becoming homeless in the first place.
The subsidies are not nearly as generous as Section 8, and they have a time limit. Section 8 is available to working poor people, but the city’s Housing StabilityPlus program is only available to people receiving public assistance. (That means that at least one in five people in city shelters are not eligible.)
The Housing Stability Plus subsidy also declines by 20 percent each year over five years, leaving many to wonder how poor families would be able to pay such increases.
Gibbs did not appear too worried about that.
“Maybe landlords won’t act on evictions â€“ when the rent goes down, they’ll let it go,” she said. “Our real fears are the years after that.
“Landlords will forgo some of the rent,” she said. “I think we are lucky in that we have a contingent of landlords who do care about homelessness.”
So far, 2,700 families have been signed up for Housing Stability Plus, Gibbs said. And, she added, “we’re saving money on the shelter side as we spend money on the rental assistance side.”
Dennis Culhane, one of the nation’s influential homelessness researchers, said while the city’s new subsidies were not as good as Section 8, they are a step in the right direction given current political realities.
“There was no cost containment in the New York City shelter system,” Culhane said. “I think they’ve gone far” by introducing the subsidies.
Anti-Eviction In The Bronx
The Civil Court’s Housing Help Program, a pilot project in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, was also a subject of discussion at the national conference. Judge Fern Fisher offered promising statistical proof of the effectiveness of providing legal services to people facing eviction, combined with comprehensive social services to address other factors that lead them into a housing crisis. The project is working: Since it started, Fisher said, not one family has been evicted from housing in the 10451 ZIP code.
“We’re still only six months into this pilot,” Fisher said during a break at the conference. “It’s too early. And we cannot be satisfied with just one ZIP code; it needs to be expanded.”
Enlisting Community Organizations To Prevent Homelessness
At the national conference and for the first time, the city publicly released data about homelessness risk factors collected via its HomeBase programs, launched last September. The programs enlist community-based organizations in homelessness prevention efforts in the six community board districts that send more people to city shelters than any others. Each of the six organizations is receiving $2 million annually over the next three years to prevent homelessness in those areas.
The organizations meet regularly with the Department of Homeless Services to discuss their efforts. Each organization has hired case workers to help people facing housing problems in a wide variety of ways: They help pay their rent, help them find apartments, help them find better jobs, help them defend themselves in housing court cases, get them into job training programs, send them for substance abuse counseling and family counseling, and more.
Advocates at the conference welcomed the city’s HomeBase initiative and praised Gibbs for developing it. HomeBase allows the community-based organizations implementing homeless prevention programs leeway in how to do that â€“ as long as they actually achieve that goal.
“One of the reasons the provider community gets so frustrated is because their hands are tied,” said Susanne Beaton of One Family, Inc., in Boston. “And here you have a commissioner saying, â€Be creative, you know this community.’ It’s an act of faith in the provider community. I’d think I’d died and gone to heaven.”
Learning Why People Wound Up In Shelters
When people have sought help at HomeBase programs, the city has collected data about why they were facing becoming homeless. The answer is not simple â€“ it’s usually a combination of factors. At the national conference, Jay Bainbridge, the assistant commissioner for policy and research at the NYC Department of Homeless Services, presented a list of “destabilizing events” that eventually lead people to seek help at city shelters:
- Job loss was a factor in 69 percent of shelter entries.
- Eviction was a factor in 47 percent of shelter entries.
- Loss of public assistance was a factor in 42 percent of shelter entries.
- Physical and emotional problems are factors in 43 and 39 percent of entries.
- Loss of a housing subsidy, such as Section 8, was a factor in 32 percent of entries.
- Household conflict was a factor in 28 percent of entries.
- Domestic violence was a factor in 21 percent of entries.
- Substance abuse was a factor in 19 percent of entries.
- Incarceration was a factor in 19 percent of entries.
Further, the data indicated that more than half the people seeking entry to city shelters had never had contact with any social service agencies prior to coming to city shelters. Massive outreach is necessary to address that problem, Bainbridge said.
In a workshop where researchers presented their views of what works and what doesn’t, providing rent subsidies was clearly emphasized as the most successful approach to dealing with homelessness. Addressing other issues a homeless person may be having might simply use up money that could be used to fund rent subsidies.
“My best prediction is that it’s not going to make a huge difference to expend resources on those factors," said Beth Shinn, a New York University researcher of homelessness. “But I think it’s really important to try. We need to see what works. I would love to be shown to be wrong.”
Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations. Â