Homelessness policy announcement (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
On April 11, the de Blasio administration announced the results of its 90-day review of homeless services. The review’s inclusive and collaborative process is impressive. The city consulted numerous stakeholders, including two groups too often ignored: clients, specifically homeless individuals in shelters and on the streets; and nonprofit homeless service providers. With respect to clients, the city surveyed 630 individuals in homeless shelters and conducted focus groups with over 80 Coalition for the Homeless, VOCAL-NY, Picture the Homeless, and Urban Justice Center Safety Net Project clients. Sixty nonprofit providers were also engaged in the review process.
As the city implements the 46 reforms in its review, it should continue including and collaborating with clients and providers. It would be a grave error to continue the mistakes of the past where clients’ concerns about shelters and providers’ requests for capital repairs were ignored.
The first opportunity for inclusion and collaboration is the Interagency Homelessness Accountability Council (or the Interagency Coordinating Council in City Administrative Code § 21-307). Both nonprofit service providers and currently/formerly homeless individuals should serve on the Council.
The vehicle is already in place: the Homeless Services Advisory Board set forth in City Administrative Code § 21-306 - as City Council General Welfare Chair Stephen Levin noted during the April 21 hearing, “Oversight: An Examination of the Department of Homeless Services 90-day Review.”
To better understand why the city should listen to providers, look to the Mayor’s Supportive Housing Taskforce, where supportive housing providers alerted the city to the unfeasible scattered-site supportive housing rates before it rolls out the first 500 units of a new program this year.
In addition, the city would do well to include and consult more formerly homeless individuals as it provides homeless services. This enables the city to utilize those with direct experience and also addresses the review’s Reform #25: Promote career pathways for shelter residents.
One area to include consumers is the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Office of the Client Ombudsman. The city can also employ formerly homeless individuals as homeless outreach workers and continue to utilize peer specialists as DHS case managers. The mental health field recognizes the invaluable role of peers and so should homeless services.
Another opportunity for client inclusion and collaboration is around the review’s Reform #12: Increase safety in shelters through a NYPD management review and retraining program. As the NYPD re-trains DHS security staff, it should utilize training akin to the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training that NYPD officers receive to de-escalate situations involving persons in emotional distress. Whereas that training draws on the experiences of individuals with mental health challenges, this can also draw on the experiences of homeless individuals.
As the city continues to work to improve its homeless services, there are no better people to seek guidance from than those now or recently involved in related programming on a daily basis.