With the homeless population at a record high and likely to get worse, thanks in part to an exhaustion of federal subsidy money and skyrocketing costs of providing shelter, two new projects — one funded by the Bloomberg administration, one by United Way of New York City -- are focusing on the prevention of homelessness. Homeless advocates are skeptical about both.
Six New Centers
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s homelessness prevention strategy was kicked off this month with the opening of one of six new centers that will be run by community-based organizations. The centers are in areas of the city that send significantly more people to city shelters than other areas.
"It’s a very daunting task," said Mary O’Reilly of Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, one of the six organizations that will receive $2 million each year for the next three years to set up what are being called HomeBASE centers. "Our assignment is to really identify people most at risk of homelessness in Community District 12. And catch them at a point where we can prevent them going into the shelter system or becoming homeless."
The organizations are currently setting up office space, hiring staff and organizing themselves to accept clients. Much of their $2 million will be used to pay clients’ rent, often long overdue, in order to prevent their eviction. The rest will go to hiring staff â€“ case workers and supervisors — who can work directly with people at risk of becoming homeless.
The Department of Homeless Services is having the organizations meet every two weeks to discuss progress. In their respective community districts, the agencies are each expected to serve 400 people annually who are in danger of becoming homeless. The people must be receiving public assistance or have low incomes. But beyond that, the agencies have some independence to tailor their programs.
Dealing With A Suitcase Full of Problems
These programs will be dealing with the many problems confronting most people who are in danger of becoming homeless, among them:
- Unemployment and underemployment
- Family discord/Domestic violence
- Mental and physical illness
“I have yet to see someone become homeless due to one problem,” said Renee Fueller, program director of the HomeBASE center that H.E.L.P. USA is operating in Community District 6 in the Bronx. “They usually have like a suitcase full of problems.”
At the same time, Fueller said, each agency is playing to its own strengths. "One of our strengths is employment training and placement."
Citizens Advice Bureau will operate a HomeBASE center in Community District 1 in the Bronx. It will help people through intensive case management to deal with family conflicts and mental health issues.
"Depression in particular is a serious problem that leads to homelessness," said Scott Auwater, Citizen Advice Bureau’s assistant executive director. "There are some people who simply cannot get out of bed in the morning." As a result, he said, they miss required appointments to receive benefits or fulfill obligations at city agencies that help them pay their rent. And they miss court dates at Housing Court, leading to a speedier eviction.
In addition, Citizens Advice Bureau said it would specifically focus on problems people have keeping their Section 8 rent subsidies. As many as 20 percent of people in city shelters, Auwater said, ended up in the shelter because they lost their Section 8 assistance. That is why Citizens Advice Bureau is participating in a study of Section 8 subsidies administered by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development -- another effort to prevent homelessness.
In Queens, O’Reilly said Catholic Charities would look to helping people by tapping into a broad network of agencies that can help people in separate ways.
"We really think the community alliance is a key to success,” O’Reilly said, “There’s a strong network out there. We’re going to bring to that the folks in the trenches working in food pantries, at shelters, who are aware of the greater needs.
“What we’ve been found is that when we’re able to partner what we have with other organizations, there is a holistic approach that can fill the gaps,” she said.
O’Reilly cited her agency’s partnership with Community Mediation Services, an agency that helps families resolve problems that often tear them apart â€“ leading some members to city shelters. In other cases, mediators can also intervene to repair broken landlord and tenant relationships.
Sounds Great, But Where Are the Resources?
Some advocates said the city’s new focus on prevention did not seem sincere.
"Everything they’re saying sounds great, there just are no resources yet,” said Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. “You can’t say you’re going to prioritize prevention until you put resources into it.”
Mayor Bloomberg has cut city spending on prevention in every budget he has sent to City Council, Markee pointed out. And the homeless population has increased by 25 percent on his watch, he said.
“If you look at the mayor’s track record you can’t consider it as anything more than talk,” he said.
The city needs to commit significant resources to three areas to resolve the problem, Markee said:
- Financial assistance to help people pay rent arrears;
- financial assistance to help people pay ongoing rent;
- legal services to help people avoid eviction.
The United Way To Prevent HomelessnessA pilot project that the United Way of New York City is funding, and that is expected to be launched in December, will apparently focus on the third of these, the legal services. The agency is keeping many of the details of the project under wraps. In lieu of granting an interview, the organization gave me a statement:
"We're in the early stages of working with Justice Fisher and the housing court system to develop an innovative, holistic approach to addressing the needs of those confronting eviction,” said Larry Mandell, president and CEO of the United Way of New York City, in the statement, referring to Judge Fern Fisher, the chief administrative judge of the Civil Court of New York City. “Ultimately, we expect the program to help meet the short-term needs of clients in addition to examining longer-term solutions to prevent future eviction, but at the moment it's too early to talk about the details."
But a variety of sources at the court and at agencies in the Bronx who were familiar with the project said its approach will be to help people with their cases in Housing Court; lawyers will help tenants defend themselves in court while social workers will help them address the issues causing their problems at home or elsewhere.
A special court will be set up at Bronx Housing Court to deal with two zip codes where many more people than usual end up in city shelters, 10451 and 10455. Court papers will even bear a colored page to indicate that the person is assigned to the new court.
The United Way has awarded grants amounting to several million dollars to Legal Services for New York, which primarily provides legal services to low-income people, and to a community-based organization called Women in Need. The Office of Court Administration is also closely involved in the project, but like the United Way has declined to comment on it.
The project has incited a lot of speculation and comment in the court itself. Innovation in the court is not new. Two community courts in Harlem and Red Hook focus services on specific zip codes. But the resource centers in those courts offer limited assistance to tenants compared to what is envisioned for the United Way’s project.
Sounds Great, But What About A Legal Right To An Attorney?Advocates said the United Way project would offer tenants helpful services, perhaps, but avoided dealing with the real problem in Housing Court: While most landlords are represented by attorneys, most tenants are not.
“This is not about stopping people getting evicted,” said Judith Goldiner, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “It’s all about window dressing. Maybe you get a little more money in there, make the landlords happy. But you seriously don’t want to get into what the issues are, which is that the landlords have lawyers and tenants don’t.”
Establishing the legal right to an attorney in Housing Court â€“ the way defendants now have in criminal court -- would be more effective, advocates said. When tenants are represented they are much less likely to be evicted. The result is also more cost effective.
“I think the obvious and still true answer is that when people have legal representation they’re far and away more likely to retain their homes,” Markee said. “Landlords have lawyers, tenants don’t. If there were a right to counsel, we’d see far fewer evictions in Housing Court, that’s for sure.”Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.