This winter has been especially cold and snowy, highlighting the plight of New York’s homeless population. Almost 38,500 people are currently in the city’s shelter system, including well over 16,500 children. These numbers mark an all-time high.
Recently, the Bloomberg administration has taken
several steps to address the problem. It has increased
the budget for homeless services, created a new way
for homeless advocates to air their concerns about
city policies without going to court and ordered a
survey of street homeless, which is scheduled for
later this month.
At a time when the city is facing a $3 billion deficit
and most agencies have had to slash their budgets, the Department of Homeless Services is getting more money for its mission. This fiscal year, the agency will spend $632 million according to figures released by the city comptroller . Next year, the
agency’s budget is set to rise to $667 million.
The new funds will go toward preventive services, rent
subsidies and other measures, said Jim Anderson,
spokesman for the Department of Homeless Services.
Much of the money will come in the form of federal
housing vouchers that can help homeless families pay
The administration has also made remarkable progress
on a problem that has plagued the Department of
Homeless Services for two decades: litigation.
Advocates for the homeless have regularly gone to
court to protest city policies. The Legal Aid Society has battled for homeless
families’ rights, while the Coalition for the Homeless has spearheaded the effort to protect homeless
single adults. The court cases established every New
Yorker’s right to shelter in the early 1980s, and
numerous other rights since then. But the litigation
has created persistent problems for the Department of
"The lawsuits brought almost two decades ago . . .
deserve recognition for their role in helping to
create today’s strong shelter services system,"
reported the department’s strategic plan , released in June 2002.
"However, the litigation that helped to generate the
current system now pervades system operations. The
department, constantly facing litigation or court
intervention has become reticent about discussing the
challenges it faces."
Some advocates disagree. "There’s an exaggerated and
cartoonish view of this litigation that there is an
enormous amount of meddling by the court in [the
Department of Homeless Services,]" said Patrick
Markee, senior policy analyst for the Coalition for
the Homeless. "We feel that historically the court
has acted appropriately to address issues for homeless
families and individuals."
Still, Mayor Bloomberg hoped to change the pattern,
once remarking, "Every single thing we do, we seem to
wind up in court. We’re trying to find a way out of
Several months ago, the administration proposed that
families that engaged in "gross misconduct" or refused
placement in permanent housing be ejected from the
shelter system. The policy would have divided families
â€“ placing children into temporary foster care and
sending adults out to fend for themselves. Advocates
challenged the proposal, arguing it would violate
people’s right to shelter. The issue seemed destined
for court, but the night before the scheduled court
date, a surprise settlement was announced.
The two sides agreed that families who reject suitable
permanent housing can be discharged from the shelter
system. However, the family would still be able to
move into an appropriate apartment selected by the
The agreement went beyond that to address the larger
issue of ongoing litigation. The parties agreed to the
formation of an independent panel that will review
city policies for homeless families and mediate
disputes between the advocates and the city. Both
sides agreed to withdraw
pending court motions, withhold new motions and allow
the panel to attempt to resolve the issues over the
next two years.
The three individuals on the panel were already
quietly working to solve the conflict. They are John
Feerick, professor of law and former dean of the
Fordham School of Law; Daniel Kronenfeld, senior
fellow for the Fund for the City of New York; and Gail
Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens’
Committee for Children.
"Today’s agreement is the dawn of a new era for those
working to serve New York City’s homeless families,"
said Bloomberg. "The introduction of standards of client
responsibility, a new commitment to avoid litigation,
and a strong and thoughtful panel to advise [the
Department of Homeless Services] will dramatically
improve the delivery of services to those in need."
The new agreement only applies to homeless families
and not to homeless individuals. The city has proposed
a similar eviction policy for them, which the
Coalition for the Homeless has appealed, but the group
is heartened by the recent agreement.
"We’re hopeful that this settlement sets the tone for
a similar resolution," said Markee of the coalition.
Linda Gibbs, the commissioner of the Department of
Homeless Services said of the settlement, "We look to
this as a new beginning, one where we can move forward
together to end family homelessness as we know it."
In an effort to improve service to homeless single
adults, the agency will conduct an overnight survey on
the streets of Manhattan in late February.
Up to 1,000 volunteers will canvass sections of the
borough and ask the people they encounter whether they
are homeless. The data is intended to enable
Department of Homeless Services to estimate the true
number of homeless.
"No one has an accurate sense of how many individuals
remain unsheltered or continue to choose the streets,"
said Anderson of the Department of Homeless Services.
"What we want to do is establish an accurate
Some homeless advocates doubt the value of the
"These sorts of surveys and street counts have proven
to be enormously flawed in the past," said Markee of
the Coalition for the Homeless. "The 1990 Census
attempted to enumerate people on the streets, and an
independent study by academics found that they missed
as many as 40 percent of the people they meant to
count. Our feeling is the time and resources would be
much better spent improving the system and finding out
what homeless people need and want."
But Anderson argues that the survey will enable the
agency to do just that. "We stand to gain so much
through this effort in terms of better understanding
who is out there, where they are and how we can better
meet their needs," he said.
Rebecca Webber is a journalist who has covered housing issues for Gotham Gazette since July 2000.
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