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Workers Speak Out About Homeless Program

by Joe Lamport, Oct 26, 2007
 

The chill in the air on October 12 outside the city’s intake center for homeless families was unexpected – it had been unseasonably hot – but perhaps fitting: The administration had announced a day before that it would no longer temporarily house families it determined really did have a place to sleep. The families were getting the cold shoulder, literally. An editorial in the Daily News that morning called them “freeloaders.”

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In a church a few blocks from the intake center, several families slept on the floor after the city denied them temporary housing. They had nowhere to go, an attorney from the Legal Aid Society said. The organization is suing the city on their behalf.

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" Some families who are staying at the church were being told to return back to their batterer or other unsafe housing,” said Steve Banks, the chief attorney of the Legal Aid Society, in an email. "The Department of Homeless Services reports on its own Web site that one third of the families who are found eligible have to apply multiple times. Therefore, under the new policy, one third of the families who are found eligible for shelter will be left without a roof over their heads while they apply multiple times and eventually overturn initial erroneous ineligibility findings."

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News of the change in policy outraged housing advocates, but there was no confrontation. A contingent of police stayed safely out of sight around the corner: A crowd of advocates and TV news reporters milled around the sidewalk.

The new policy on emergency shelter drew attention to how the city deals with homelessness. This policy is one piece of an overall approach that advocates believe is failing. The mayor has pledged to reduce homelessness by two-thirds by 2009. That appears increasingly improbable. When the city introduced a pilot prevention approach in September 2004 called HomeBase, the number of people in city shelters was 36,720; the number now is around 35,940, according to a recent daily report.

The HomeBase centers were introduced at about the same time that the city stopped using Section 8, the federal rent subsidy, to pay for housing for homeless people. The city then introduced a rent subsidy program called Housing Stability Plus, but soon scrapped it and replaced it with a new set of subsidies called Advantage New York.

Increasingly, the city is counting on its HomeBase programs to address family homelessness. Over the last month, I interviewed several HomeBase workers -- people working daily with New Yorkers facing homelessness. They spoke to me on the condition that I not name them for fear of losing their jobs.

The Birth of HomeBase

Recognizing that treating homelessness was far more expensive than preventing it, the city introduced HomeBase in September 2004. The program began as a pilot project in six communities that send a disproportionate number of people to city homeless shelters: East Harlem; the East Tremont/Belmont and South Bronx areas of the Bronx; Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Jamaica, Queens.

The city contracted the operation of the centers to community-based organizations with the hope that the organizations would best be able to identify and help those most at risk of becoming homeless. Even with knowledge of the community, that remains a difficult task. “I don’t know that there’s a way to really know if someone is going to a shelter,” said one worker.

Once the program identifies someone as being at risk of becoming homeless, HomeBase centers provide comprehensive assistance. Workers said they deal with everything from childcare to employment training to rent arrears problems. The department and many housing advocates saw the program as a promising new direction for addressing homelessness.

“ When we first came in, the whole idea was to decrease the number of people going into the shelters, at the grassroots where they come from,” one worker said. “That’s a good idea.”

At first, the city reported success in districts with HomeBase centers. But last year, the number of homeless people increased citywide, including in the HomeBase districts, a HomeBase worker with access to the statistical breakdown told me.

Earlier this year, the city decided to expand HomeBase, doubling the budget from $10 million to $20 million for this fiscal year. The work, though, increased much more, said one worker. Instead of the original six community districts, the program will now have to serve 59 ostensibly.

“ If we had $3 million for one district and then they gave us $3 million for three districts and $6 million for six districts, then the money has not increased,” said one worker. “It amounts to a decrease. We’re doing more with less.”

The expansion, though, has been postponed repeatedly. In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services said the agency was finalizing contracts with new organizations that will begin operating HomeBase centers in the rest of the city.

If and when it finally happens, the expansion will make HomeBase the city’s primary homelessness prevention effort, housing advocates said. Every tool the city uses to deal with homelessness – from rent subsidies to new housing programs – will be found in the HomeBase centers.

“ It looks like they are going to use HomeBase for just about everything,” an attorney who works on housing issues told me.

The way it will do this could vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. The organizations running HomeBase have been given some latitude in how they address homelessness in their areas. As long as the number of people entering shelters from the area decreases, the department has not argued strenuously with their decisions, one worker said. All of the workers complimented the department’s willingness to work with frontline workers.

“ They don’t come to the meetings telling us what we need to do,” one worker said. “They tell us our parameters. But they leave the how up to us. And they listen to what we say and often they will implement what we suggest.”

The department retains some control through an approval process, a worker explained. For example, if a worker proposed that the center help a client pay back rent in order to remain in an affordable apartment, the department must approve the payment if it exceeds $1,000. And according to a worker, “virtually all” of the situations involving overdue rent involve amounts above $1,000.

A Difficult Job

The HomeBase workers expressed frustration about their work. While trying to help people facing homelessness is difficult and often draining , the workers said their frustrations stemmed from the homeless services department’s policies and approaches to the homeless problem.

In emails, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services acknowledged HomeBase’s limitations and defended the program. Last year it was nominated for an award for innovation in government given by Harvard University.

“ Prevention programs of any kind face targeting challenges, and (homeless services) has been continually working to target prevention services so that those most at risk of homelessness engage with HomeBase and receive services,” a spokesperson wrote. “Also, while the HomeBase program does an excellent job providing long-term comprehensive services to those facing imminent risk of homelessness, some applicants are not enrolled in HomeBase because their housing problems have not yet reached the critical stage or they are not in need of long-term or intensive casework.”

Problems from the Start

Workers said problems with HomeBase became evident early on. Anderson Fils-Aime worked at the organization that operates a HomeBase center in East Harlem that has recently expanded its services to all of Manhattan.

At first, he said, the homeless services department wanted to target doubled-up people – that is, people living with friends or relatives in overcrowded apartments. Shelter surveys showed that many people seeking shelter were living in such situations.

“ They were asking ‘Why are you seeking shelter?’ and people were saying ‘Because I’m doubled up,’” Fils-Aime said. “They were not asking, ‘Why are you doubled-up?’”

To discourage such people from seeking help at city shelters, homeless services told HomeBase providers to offer mediation for families and grants to buy bunk beds, Fils-Aime explained.

“ The reasons people are facing homelessness are things like I lost my (rent) subsidy, I lost my apartment due to a rent increase, I’m a victim of domestic violence and I lost my job,” he said. “They needed to attack those problems.”

Fils-Aime said his agency explained this to the department. “We told them folks are telling us, ‘If you can find me a place to live, I’ll not go into shelter,’” he said. “You’re talking about people who are making $20,000 (annually) with families. Landlords wouldn’t take them. We couldn’t get them any money if they were paying more than 30 percent of their income to rent.” Over a year later, the department gave in and allowed some exceptions, Fils-Aime said.

The department also suggested using rent subsidy vouchers issued under the federal Section 8 program to help doubled-up tenants. But this approach, Fils-Aime said, ignored some basic realities.

“ We were told we could use Section 8 to help doubled-up families,” he said. “But the conditions they had to meet were that they needed to have the lease in their name. The first thing about doubled-up families that is obvious is that the lease is not in their name. We’d sit in meetings and say, ‘Who came up with this?’”

In an email, the department called Fils-Aime’s account “inaccurate.” Homeless services “has negotiated more flexible criteria to ensure that vouchers can go to those HomeBase clients who are most at risk of housing instability,” the department’s spokesperson wrote. “HomeBase programs can apply [for Section 8] for individuals who are in a doubled-up situation, who do not have a lease and are not currently employed.”

Fils-Aime said he left the program when he learned that the department was turning a blind eye when his HomeBase center began approving rent payments for rooms in public housing apartments. It is illegal to rent out individual rooms in public housing apartment.

“ We were using city money to put people in illegal rooms,” Fils-Aime said. “We were contributing to a fraudulent act. Everyone knew about it. I told them I can’t be a part of this.”

In its response, the department said, “The HomeBase programs do serve clients who come to them already doubled up in [New York City Housing Authority] housing, but HomeBase does not promote subleases or rental situations in NYCHA housing, as this would obviously put the tenancy of the primary tenant in jeopardy.”

Shifting Strategies

City officials were not oblivious to the problems with HomeBase, the workers said. In fact, maybe they were thinking about them too much, one worker told me.

“ They change policy about every week,” the worker said. “The changes areso great that if you took a two-week vacation you’d come back and say, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

The department said each organization that operated a HomeBase center implemented programs in its own way, although the department audits them to ensure the contractor adheres to city policies, procedures and practices.

“ The flexibility of the HomeBase program has always been an important strength,” the department added.

The emphasis on helping people stay in doubled-up situations began to diminish. The city then tried using its then-new Housing Stability Plus or HSP rent subsidy. The subsidy was used to help people on public assistance and in homeless shelters find apartments. It would cover the total rent for a year and then decrease by 20 percent each successive year until it finally ran out in the fifth year. Thousands of families were placed in apartments with HSP, the city said.

But landlords soured on the program. For one thing, the subsidy would be cut when recipients broke a public assistance rule – like failing to come to an appointment – and landlords would not get paid. The payment would also be cut if the recipient found work and the income disqualified him or her for public assistance. For another, it was not clear to landlords how they would get the rent if the tenants could not pay their 20 percent share after the first year.

“ HSP was pure garbage,” one HomeBase worker said. “For the life of me I cannot imagine how anyone allowed that to be implemented. They created a program where you had to go to work but the minute you went to work you lost your benefits. What kind of fool allowed that?”

The city scrapped Housing Stability Plus last year, introducing a new set of subsidies called Advantage New York. And it has started using Section 8, the federal rent subsidy, to pay for apartments. Eliminating the use of Section 8 to help the homeless was one of the main reasons the city changed policy in 2004. Ironically, using Section 8 three years ago might have worked, one worker said, but now it might be too late. Suitable apartments simply may not exist.

“ It would work if you could find the apartment,” he said. “I would bet that 15 percent of the Section 8 we issue will ever get used.” The rest – or some 85 percent – “can’t find the apartments. Section 8 is not worthless, but it’s close to worthless,” he said.The lack of affordable housing is the crux of the problem, the HomeBase workers said. They said they now try to use a grant to pay a client’s rent arrears and then put the person or family on a “fast-track” to get Section 8.

“ That’s the goal in most cases,” a worker said. “It would work if you could find the apartment.”

Keeping People Out of Shelters

Yet another new strategy has many housing advocates deeply concerned: having HomeBase workers focus on diverting people, who may already be homeless, from city shelters rather than focusing on keeping them from becoming homeless in the first place. That approach is simply making things worse, Fils-Aime said.

“ They are trying to divert people who have been evicted and now gone to the shelter for help,” he explained. “But they’ve already lost the apartment. If you spend all your time trying to divert people you are not doing prevention. They should be getting these people before they end up at shelters, not after.”

This policy might be attributed to what the HomeBase workers see as a disconnect between the daily work they do and the policies implemented by City Hall.

“ The farther away from the action you get the more distorted the picture becomes,” said one worker. “The farther away from service delivery, the priorities change.”

Another worker was optimistic, however, that the department would fix the problems with the HomeBase programs.

“ It’s still in a settling-in phase,” he said. “They’ve finally gotten around to utilizing employment as an incentive rather than as a punishment. If you’re working we can work with you because if you have no income, housing is not your issue. Ability to pay is your issue.”

To many housing advocates, though, the underlying problem is the city’s overall approach to homelessness, exemplified by the new policy on emergency shelter. With that in mind, Picture the Homeless has organized a rally on October 30 at City Hall to protest the new policy. Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  


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