Gotham Gazette

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This Holy Season, State Leaders Should Redouble Efforts to Combat Chronic Homelessness with Supportive Housing

At home (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

This is a holy time for many New Yorkers. Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, all observed this time of year, include important lessons about our collective duty to care for the least fortunate among us. 

The number of individuals who need that help is growing. Officials across the state are grappling with how to address a homelessness crisis of epic proportions. 

Multiple studies have shown that the best tool available to combat chronic homelessness is to provide individuals not only with a roof over their heads, but on-site services like mental health and substance use counseling to ensure that they can stay safely housed long-term. 

New York pioneered this supportive housing model, launching innovative and cutting-edge programs in the early ‘80s that brought together faith leaders, social service providers, and nonprofit organizations in a unique and never-before-seen collaboration. But as the need for more supportive units grows, developing them is becoming more difficult – and expensive. 

In 2016, the state made an historic commitment to develop 20,000 supportive apartments by 2031 by way of the Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative (ESSHI). But the price tag for building, land acquisition, labor, and supplies has risen exponentially since then

The cost of maintaining existing supportive housing developments has risen too, but the state’s funding rates have not kept up, essentially rendering ESSHI obsolete — especially in New York City, where close to 69,000 individuals – including more than 21,000 children — sleep in municipal shelters every night, and thousands more are on the streets, in parks, and in the subway system.  

It is imperative to the future of the ESSHI program that state lawmakers and the governor this year raise the per-unit rates for services and rent subsidies from $25,000 per unit to $35,000 per unit. The total cost to the state of this important investment would be just $14 million a year – a small fraction of the $227 billion executive budget Governor Kathy Hochul proposed.

The difference would be immediate and palpable: jumpstarting the development of both supportive and affordable housing. Governor Hochul has already recognized the desperate need for more affordable housing, announcing a strategy to build 800,000 new homes over the next decade. 

Catalyzing the creation of more ESSHI units is especially needed for certain groups of people who otherwise would not qualify for this housing. The program uniquely allows nonprofits to build housing for families escaping domestic violence and for individuals re-entering society after incarceration. For both these extremely vulnerable populations, ESSHI is the only option for safe, stable housing with wrap-around services.  

The impact of supportive housing for families escaping domestic violence is incalculable. The ability to quickly access a new place to live and the services necessary to stay housed is key to the success of victims seeking to start a new life – for parents and children. And providing supportive housing for a formerly-incarcerated individual is vastly more affordable to the taxpayers than the cost of keeping them behind bars: $1,500 per person, per day at Rikers Island, according to the New York City Comptroller’s Office.

Supportive housing enables individuals and families to rebuild their lives in dignity and safety. It also can help transform formerly blighted and underutilized buildings and underdeveloped lots, providing a broader benefit to the local community. 

It is fortuitous that this holy season – a time of rebirth and recommitment to the tenets of kindness and caring for those less fortunate than we are – coincides with the closing days of debate over the state budget in Albany. It is our fervent hope that lawmakers and the governor take this opportunity to do what’s right and invest in supportive housing – a proven model that has the potential to make an even bigger difference for the people who need it and our entire state. 

The Rev. Ann Marie Witchger is Associate Rector and Chief of Staff at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on the Upper East Side. Evan A. Davis is chair of the church’s Homeless Working Group and was chief counsel to Governor Mario M. Cuomo.

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