Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio and Homelessness: A New Progressive Mayor Wrestles with an Old Social Problem

de Blasio Banks homelessness

Mayor de Blasio & Commissioner Banks (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

This is part one of a three-part series.

Part One: The Challenge of Homeless Policy
During the course of his overwhelmingly successful campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio made poverty and income inequality his main issues. As the liberal journalist and fervent de Blasio supporter Eric Alterman put the matter, “De Blasio made economic inequality the central issue in his campaign and attempted to tie nearly every issue he addressed to that problem.” Homelessness was obviously such an issue, and so when de Blasio took office in January 2014, expectations were high that he would address that problem effectively.

The Way Things Are Now
Unfortunately, as of April 2017, under the mayor, the homelessness problem had, by some important measures, gotten worse. The month de Blasio assumed office there were 53,615 people in the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelter system. That number has hovered around 60,000 people since December 2014. The annual enumeration of street dwellers—the HOPE count—is down from 3,537 people in 2014 to about 2,794 in 2016, which is a positive trend but not a dramatic improvement. And the DHS budget remains high: $1.29 billion for the current 2017 fiscal year.

De Blasio himself recently admitted that the city has not made nearly enough progress, while announcing another new homelessness-fighting plan and creating new, unambitious goals for reducing the homeless population. Voters and other observers are not impressed. Surprisingly, given the emphasis de Blasio put on poverty and homelessness in his campaign, a March 2017 Quinnipiac University poll found that voters rated this the weakest aspect of the mayor’s performance, with 55 percent disapproving. And The New York Times editorial board, which supported de Blasio’s mayoral run, recently concluded, “The rise in homelessness is arguably the mayor's biggest failure in that goal to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

How did the mayor end up in this position, and what is he doing about it?

How We Got Here
To put de Blasio’s situation in context, we have to go back to 2004, when Mayor Bloomberg developed a five-year plan to “make the condition of chronic homelessness effectively extinct in New York.” Preventing homelessness would be emphasized through a “Home Base” program that would intervene with at-risk families to keep them housed. Analysis would show that Home Base did lower homelessness and even paid for itself.

More supportive housing—that is, apartments with services for the mentally ill and other disabled street dwellers—was to be developed. This goal was accomplished in 2005, when the city and state signed the third in a series of “New York/New York” agreements, which produced 9,000 such units. Under the “Housing First” philosophy, street dwellers would be moved into supportive housing as quickly as possible, an approach that both reduced street homelessness and encouraged enrollment in rehabilitative services. Shelter use was to be cut by rehousing long-term shelter stayers. And, very importantly, shelter clients were to be moved out through rent subsidies, which, a key document noted, “must continue to be available in shelter to re-house chronically homeless individuals and families.”

Bloomberg pledged to reduce the shelter census—36,399 people in June of 2004—by two-thirds in five years, to about 12,000 persons by 2009.

On October 19, 2004, DHS abandoned its long-term policy of giving shelter residents priority for entering public housing and for federal Section 8 rent vouchers, which were forms of housing subsidies. Commissioner of DHS Linda Gibbs believed that policy attracted poor families into the shelters to receive the subsidies and so drove up the census. But moving one family out of the system with a subsidy meant the census would go up only if subsidies also drew in more than one new family. But economists found that to draw one family into the system requires placing seven families into subsidized housing. Perverse incentives are real but too weak to drive up the shelter census. Nonetheless, shelter families lost preferential access to public housing and Section 8 vouchers; instead, they were eligible for a temporary five-year rent subsidy, Housing Stability Plus. This system was then replaced in 2007 by Advantage, a two-year-maximum rent-subsidy program funded jointly by the state and the city.

By Bloomberg’s deadline of June 2009, the shelter census had not dropped appreciably. Then, as a result of a falling out between the city and the state over funding amid the unraveling financial crisis, Advantage ended. At that point no subsidies of any kind were offered to move families out of the shelter system. The number of people in the DHS shelter system began going up, and in January 2014 de Blasio inherited a record high shelter census.

De Blasio’s challenge was to create a new rent subsidy, implement it effectively, do nothing to encourage shelter entries, and hope for a decline in the census. How well did he meet that challenge?

De Blasio’s First Steps
First, the new administration made striking changes in personnel as well as policy. Steven Banks, the Legal Aid lawyer who since 1983 had litigated against the city for the right to shelter for homeless families, became commissioner of HRA, which runs public-benefit programs including rent subsidies. Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former Catholic nun who served in the city’s social service bureaucracy under Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg, became deputy mayor for Health and Human Services. And Gilbert Taylor, formerly executive deputy commissioner for the Administration for Children’s Services, was appointed commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services.

The new administration’s biggest initiative in homeless policy is the Living in Communities (LINC) programs, which are a batch of rental-subsidy programs designed to help various sorts of shelter clients move out of the system. But the new programs had implementation problems. Getting LINC started required cooperation from New York State and thus between de Blasio and Governor Cuomo. The necessary small adjustments were not accomplished in a timely manner. LINC did not get fully up to speed until December 2014, and the nonpartisan Independent Budget Office concluded that “the homeless shelter population has remained stubbornly high this year. This is largely due to a slower than anticipated start to the LINC rental assistance programs.”

The ongoing Cuomo-de Blasio turbulence also delayed the development of more supportive housing. Supportive housing provided through the New York/New York agreements is one of the great successes in homeless policy and has been demonstrated to keep the disabled off the streets and reduce the cost of their care. The last of these agreements was signed in November 2005, and by 2014 most of its units were occupied. Thus, many homeless people remained on the streets, where they attracted the attention of unsympathetic media and the general public and fostered the perception of a homeless crisis. In fact, despite the declining street homeless population documented by the HOPE count, the March 2017 Quinnipiac poll reported that 54 percent of city voters believed that they were seeing more homeless people on the streets and in parks and subways than they did a few years ago.

The de Blasio team made a big misstep when in 2015 it decided to halt development of new shelters for eight months due to community opposition. When the delayed LINC program did not reduce the shelter census, the city was forced to rely on various unsatisfactory stopgaps to put up homeless clients.

Cluster Sites
One such stopgap is the cluster site program, which was initiated by the Bloomberg administration and harshly criticized by de Blasio before he became mayor. Under this program, DHS rents out a “cluster” of private apartments to shelter homeless families. Private landlords own the apartments while nonprofit providers under contract with DHS provide the families with services, and the buildings have a mix of homeless families and private rent-paying tenants.

The cluster site program is a policy disaster. It is premised on putting shelter families in apartments that would otherwise have gone to still-independent families, thus making an already tight low-income housing market even worse. And cluster site apartments are of poor quality. In March 2015, the Department of Investigation (DOI), which is a non-mayoral agency, released a scathing, 180-page report on family shelters that focused mostly on cluster site apartments.

The DOI report found DHS’ cluster sites to be “poorly monitored” and said that they “provide the least adequate social services to families.” Among the issues were rodent infestations, fire safety code violations, defective window guards, a lack of furniture, and units in need of major repair. Landlords can charge three times the market rent for such low-quality apartments.

Moreover, as the buildings are privately owned, DHS is unable to monitor who is using the apartment, security guards cannot screen guests, and there are many unauthorized visitors. Assaults, prostitution, gang activity, and other crimes are frequent. DHS is even renting from landlords who are on the Public Advocate’s list of the city’s 100 worst landlords. Well before he became mayor, de Blasio was aware of these problems and pledged to end the use of cluster sites. But his moratorium on building new shelters and continuing high demand left him unable to do so. Given the vastness of the cluster site program—3,000 families—improvement will take years.

Commercial Hotels
De Blasio inherited the cluster site program from Bloomberg, but is himself responsible for reviving the old and unfortunate practice of placing shelter system clients in commercial hotels. In the late 1980s, the common practice was to place homeless families in private, for-profit “welfare hotels” where conditions were infamously bad. Eventually the federal government refused to fund these hotels, and the practice was curbed.

But because of increased demand, de Blasio has had to return to using commercial hotels. Unlike with traditional, “Tier II” shelters, use of commercial hotels does not require community board notification, for the city is able to claim that it is not actually opening up a “facility,” but merely renting out hotel rooms. DHS has to make sure its clients maintain a low profile in these hotels to avoid protests from other guests.

Further, providing social services in a private facility is difficult. DHS clients in commercial hotels, although they may like the relative independence hotels offer compared to Tier IIs, are thus less likely to receive the necessary assistance to obtain permanent housing. Also, security at the hotels is poor. Visitors are not monitored and only recently have security guards been stationed at hotels. In February of 2016, there was a triple homicide at the Staten Island Ramada Inn. A man murdered his girlfriend and her two children, one of whom was his own. Had this hotel had the same security and monitoring that is provided in Tier II shelters, it is unlikely that this tragedy would have occurred.

This is part one of a three-part series.
Read Part Two: Setbacks and Responses
Skip to Part Three: Can de Blasio Turn the Tide on Homelessness

by Peter Nasaw and Thomas J. Main. Nasaw, MPA, LMSW, is an expert on homeless policy who has worked in the social services for several years. Main is a professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, Baruch College, City University of New York and author of Homelessness in New York City: Policymaking from Koch to de Blasio.

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