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More Cities Should Do What States and Federal Government Aren't on Minimum Wage


de blasio minimum wage announcement crowd

Mayor de Blasio at his recent minimum wage announcement (photo: Michael Appleton)


Early this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a guaranteed $15 minimum wage for all city government employees by the end of 2018. This is a big win for over 50,000 workers across the city struggling to provide for their families.

Unlike in Seattle and Los Angeles, where city officials are empowered to raise the minimum wage for the entire workforce in their cities, Mayor de Blasio is unable to unilaterally raise wages for all New York City workers. That power lies with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature. The governor's efforts to lift the minimum wage to $15 are being hampered by a Republican-controlled state Senate.

De Blasio's decision to raise wages for city employees is a crucial independent step towards a more equitable city - and should be seen as an inspiration for cities around the nation. It also reflects the power and momentum of a groundbreaking worker-led countrywide movement demanding higher wages.

Even as state and federal administrations drag their feet on the inevitable question of a decent minimum wage for working families in the United States, de Blasio's gutsy move shows cities can and should take matters into their own hands.

The mayor's minimum wage raise closely follows his announcement last month giving six weeks paid parental leave, and up to 12 weeks when combined with existing leave, to the city's 20,000 non-unionized employees. The mayor has now moved to negotiate the same benefits with municipal unions. Again, New York City private sector workers must look to Albany or Washington, D.C. to move on paid family leave for all.

Mayor de Blasio's recent actions support his goal of lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty over ten years. More than 20 percent of the city's population lives in poverty, a huge swath of a city commonly associated with extraordinary wealth.

The last couple of years have seen unparalleled momentum from workers themselves - from New York City to Los Angeles and Chicago - calling for livable wages, resulting in minimum wage raises for fast food workers and other groups.

Workers are not waiting patiently on government officials – they are organizing in an unprecedented way. Progressive mayors like de Blasio are responding with sound policy, while less responsive officials are being put on notice. Cities like Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago are paving the way, showing that it is possible to act independently of state and federal governments.

In addition, laws raising the minimum wage to more than the pitiful federal standard of $7.25 an hour have passed in a number of states. There are now campaigns to raise the floor and standards for workers being led in 14 states and four cities. This momentum is building into a crescendo that will have deep implications for the 2016 presidential election.

Nearly half of our country's workers earn less than $15 an hour and 43 million are forced to work or place their jobs at risk when sick or faced with a critical care-giving need. Now is the time for cities to listen to their workers and override state and federal passivity to allow millions of hard-working Americans to provide for their families.

***
JoEllen Chernow is minimum wage and paid sick days campaign director at Center for Popular Democracy. On Twitter @popdemoc.

A Case for None-Time-Limited Supportive Housing for Young Adults


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Mayor de Blasio with the city's mental health plan (photo: Mike Appleton)


Recently there has been a great deal of interest in young adult supportive housing without time limits or age caps. We may be witnessing the beginning stages of a paradigm shift in which there is acknowledgement of developmental variations among youth. Both Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and United States Interagency Council on Housing (USICH) consider this as a potentially more effective approach to ending youth homelessness.

Traditionally, housing for youth has been transitional. Even when 'permanent supportive housing' is used, most programs involve length of stay limits (usually 18-24 months), and age caps meant to define true adulthood and capability to live independently without support services.

Transitional programs generally have fairly regimented guidelines with the expectation that "graduation" from the program will enable each youth to move into their own apartment and achieve self-sufficiency. However, many of these youths move in with family or friends "temporarily" or are admitted to another time-limited housing program based on their need of continued services. A large number of these youths/young adults are dealing with past trauma and may have special needs such as mental health and substance abuse issues making it difficult, if not impossible, to live independently.

At West End we believe non-time-limited affordable housing with support services onsite is another effective solution in the spectrum of services for homeless and formerly homeless youth. Our "True Colors" supportive housing programs for formerly homeless LGBT youth are new and innovative examples of this model.

Each residence consists of 30 studio apartments, community space, computer lab/resource library, and laundry facilities. West End staffs each with a program director, clinical case manager, and life skills training manager, along with 24-hour security and a live-in building superintendent.

While tenants must be 18-24 years old upon move-in, they may stay as long as they need or choose providing they comply with their rental lease agreement and basic house rules. Our service delivery involves trauma informed care and harm reduction techniques.

We chose this supportive housing model because we believe the development of independent living skills is an organic process unique to each individual and that arbitrary age and programmatic time frames do not define actual needs or abilities, especially for those who are severely traumatized by homelessness, family rejection, and loss of support.

The success of our residents speaks to the quality and appropriateness of the model. Of the original tenants at the True Colors Residence, which opened four years ago, well over half have moved on to fully independent affordable housing while others still in need of our services remain supportive housing tenants. Equally impressive is the noted decrease in substance abuse, down from 60% to 30%, as well as the reduction of unemployment from 40% to 20%.

The provision of supportive housing without time limits is an effective way to end homelessness for young adults - for more information the USICH webinar on the subject is a great resource. We are pleased by both the Mayor's and the Governor's commitment to increase the supply of supportive housing units and look forward to working with the City and State to provide housing and services for LGBT young adults in need.

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Colleen Jackson is Chief Executive Officer of West End Residences HDFC, Inc. On Twitter @WestEndResNYC.

Don't Be Seduced By Sexy Transportation Projects


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Gov. Cuomo & his infrastructure plans (photo via The Governor's Office on flickr)


We don't research and write about New York's rich transportation history because we get excited about subway tokens or World's Fair era subway cars. Rather, we seek out information to help us learn from both our past mistakes and accomplishments. The most important lesson that we have learned is that we can't backtrack on investing in our existing infrastructure.

It's easy to be seduced by projects that expand subway and rail lines, but they can't come at the expense of fixing our deteriorating and seriously underfunded transit system. It's an important message to our elected officials in Albany who have not yet approved the MTA's five-year capital program, even though it was initially proposed fifteen months ago.

The events from January 12, 35 years ago, are seared in our memories because they remind us what can happen if New Yorkers again fail to raise taxes, tolls, or fares to adequately maintain our transit network. Early that frigid 1981 morning, a train derailed when a motor fell off a subway car.

Transit officials diverted buses to carry stranded subway riders; however, there were not enough buses since 637 of them had been taken out of service because of potential cracks in their undercarriages.

That day, subway riders on virtually every line were affected by crowding and delays because one-fifth of the subway cars were stalled in subway yards by mechanical failure. Extra maintenance workers were called in but their repair work was hampered by a lack of spare parts.

Unfortunately, it was not an isolated event.

Trains were breaking down, on average, every 6,600 miles. That compares to more than 140,000 miles today. In the early 1980s, doors were broken on more than one-third of the subway cars while graffiti covered nearly every surface of the cars and stations.

Most New Yorkers either aren't old enough or haven't lived in New York long enough to remember the state of the subways in the early 1980s. That is why we find it so disconcerting when we see history repeat itself.

New Yorkers got themselves into that situation because they didn't want to raise subway fares and they prioritized expanding the transit system over maintaining the existing infrastructure. At the time, the Second Avenue subway and other aborted major expansion projects had consumed almost half of the transit system's capital budget.

The subway system has come a long way in 35 years, but it still has not come back from decades of prior neglect. In the early 1980s, the MTA embarked on a ten-year program that it had hoped would bring the entire system up to a state of good repair. Then, it could replace equipment and components on a regular basis.
Keeping a system in a state of good repair is a necessary and expensive undertaking. Few of us think about the MTA's hidden infrastructure like its aging fan plants and ventilation systems, until there is a fire. Likewise, we don't think about the subway's 400 pumping stations until the stations and tunnels are flooded during a hurricane.

To understand the MTA's need for more than five billion dollars a year to maintain its resources, just consider the system's buses. The MTA has about 5,700 buses which have a useful life of about 12 years. That means on average, the MTA needs to replace one-twelfth of its buses every year, which is about 475 buses annually. Since 40-foot buses cost about $500,000 and 60-foot buses about $750,000, the MTA needs to spend more than $250 million every single year just to replace its existing bus fleet on a regular basis.

Alas, after 30 years and spending more than $100 billion, the MTA still hasn't reached that state of good repair nirvana. Repairing and replacing equipment that goes back more than a 100 years has been far more expensive and complicated than anyone expected. The subway system still has elevators, escalators, tunnel lighting, power systems, ventilation equipment and maintenance facilities that are not in good repair.

More than 30 years of investments has transformed the transit system, but it has also put the MTA under enormous strain, because it has been paid for with more than $34 billion in loans. That is why the MTA is now spending more than 30 percent of the revenue it generates from tolls and fares to paying off its growing debt.
If the MTA doesn't get the resources it needs, transit services will suffer both in the short-term and long-term. And, allowing facilities and equipment to stay in a state of disrepair is costly because older equipment breaks down more often and requires costly repairs.

Failing to raise sufficient funds while simultaneously trying to expand the transit system got New York into a jam in the '80s. The MTA is now spending $11 billion to bring the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central Terminal, a project that will have widespread benefits for New York, but one that has taken resources away from rehabilitating the existing system.

We want everyone to remember January 12, 1981 because the MTA is again being pulled and tugged in numerous directions to expand the system without sufficient funds to pay for them. 

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by Philip M. Plotch and Nicholas D. Bloom

Previous columns by these authors:

Plotch is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Masters in Public Administration program at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City. He is the former director of World Trade Center Redevelopment and Special Projects for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and the former manager of planning for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is the author of Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject.

Bloom is associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology where he is also Chair of Urban Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies. He has written many books including The Metropolitan Airport: JFK International and Modern New York and the forthcoming edited collection from Princeton University Press, Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

To Fix Penn Station, Think Smaller


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Cuomo with a new Penn Station plan (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin, Governor's Office)


Governor Cuomo deserves credit for jumpstarting the Moynihan Station project this week, albeit under a different moniker. After decades of neglect, commuters and long-distance travelers deserve light, air, and dignity.

But Cuomo's plan neglects the deeper problems that have long plagued Penn Station.

In 1970, one railroad controlled the transportation hub. After it went bankrupt, New York State took over trains to Long Island, New Jersey took over trains to the Garden State, and the Feds took on the rest.

Chaos ensued. Some routine trips now required three different types of tickets bought in three different ways. Passengers boarded from three different concourses with three different departure boards.

And worst of all, three different railroads clogged the same number of tracks.

Crowds, delays, and frustration become the norm. And after Superstorm Sandy decimated Penn's tunnels, the three railroads bickered and dithered as riders suffered.

Even with a reinvented station complex overhead, the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak will still share the mostly same tracks, cramped platforms, and underwater tunnels. It's unlikely that decades of dysfunction will disappear after the ribbons are cut.

And with ridership climbing and Sandy repairs looming, the trio can barely keep up with the status quo — let alone support the expansion that the economy demands.

Cooperation would help resolve these problems. Running commuter trains between Long Island and New Jersey — rather than terminating them at Penn — could double capacity while opening up jobs to those on both sides of Manhattan. Coordinated communications and ticketing could ease crowding and nerves. And other options, such as sharing services, would slow the rate of fare increases for riders of all stripes.

To truly fix Penn Station, Cuomo must look beyond the building. Cooperation among the railroads is the missing ingredient in the governor's plan.

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Adrian Untermyer is Deputy Director of the Historic Districts Council and was named an Emerging Leader in Transportation by the NYU Rudin Center. On Twitter @untermyer.

A New York New Year's Resolution: End the AIDS Epidemic


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Gov. Cuomo (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


The year 2016 could go down in history as the pivotal year in New York's fight against HIV/AIDS. Nearly 35 years after The New York Times reported the first cases of what would later be recognized as AIDS, New York State is poised to become the first jurisdiction in the world to end its HIV epidemic, even without a cure, by stopping new infections and ending AIDS deaths.

Thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo's leadership, New York State has developed a viable plan that, if fully funded and implemented, will end our AIDS epidemic by the year 2020, and can become a blueprint for all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Now, for the plan to succeed, every New York community must match Governor Cuomo's commitment with renewed energy, support, and action.

Governor Cuomo launched New York's Ending the Epidemic initiative in 2014 by announcing a three-point plan to expand HIV testing, treatment, and prevention to decrease new HIV infections from 3,000 a year in 2013 to less than 750 by 2020. He pointed out that we have the tools: Current antiretroviral medications can keep HIV-positive persons healthy and stop ongoing transmission of the virus, and, when taken as prevention, they can protect those at highest risk of HIV infection.

We now must work to remove barriers to treatment and prevention so all New Yorkers can benefit equally from these advances. These obstacles are also linked to social disparities, including lack of access to health insurance and linkage to care for mental health and substance use, secure housing, and employment opportunities, making it challenging for those living with HIV to receive and sustain treatment.

In April 2015, Gov. Cuomo endorsed the Ending the Epidemic Blueprint, consisting of 30 recommendations to achieve the governor's goals as well as seven "getting to zero" recommendations to reach zero new HIV infections, stigma, and AIDS deaths by 2020. I was proud to be a member of the task force of experts from around New York State that created the blueprint.

Just last month, the Governor made history again by pledging to include $200 million in additional state funding in his executive budget to fully implement blueprint recommendations.

Gov. Cuomo's budget commitment could go a long way to support our efforts to end HIV/AIDS here in New York City, allowing for expanded housing, transportation, and other critical services for our most vulnerable New Yorkers with HIV, as well as treatment and prevention strategies targeted to reach and retain those most in need. Amida Care serves people with HIV every day, and with stable housing and affordable care, our community members can live long and full lives.

We also know that better access to new prevention tools—including PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a daily pill that involves the use of anti-retroviral medication to prevent HIV transmission— has been shown to be over 90 percent effective.

At Amida Care, the largest Medicaid special-needs health plan (SNP) in New York State, we have demonstrated the power of providing holistic, accessible HIV and AIDS treatment and care to underserved and often overlooked communities. Amida Care is one of five Medicaid managed care plans selected to participate in Gov. Cuomo's new $2.5 million pilot program to bring 6,000 HIV positive patients into care and provide support to achieve viral suppression.

Through our specialized model of care, we have already achieved a viral suppression rate approaching 75 percent among our HIV-positive members. Successes like these save lives and produce much-needed long-term health care savings. But we must continue to push further to end the AIDS epidemic.

It is crucial to ensure that Governor Cuomo's new $200 million allocation to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York is fully supported in the final budget passed by the State Assembly and Senate. This wise public investment will improve HIV health outcomes and prevent thousands of new infections, saving both lives and billions of dollars in avoided health care costs.

With the governor's budget commitment, we will have the tools, a blueprint, and the resources needed to end our AIDS epidemic. The rest is up to us.

There is much work to be done in 2016. But together, by following the governor's leadership and continuing to take action, we can achieve an AIDS-free New York by 2020.

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Doug Wirth is the president and CEO of Amida Care, a not-for-profit health plan that specializes in providing comprehensive health coverage and coordinated care to New Yorkers with chronic conditions, including HIV and behavioral health disorders.

Paid Family Leave in NYC: Progressive Policy, Regressive Plan


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The mayor (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


Paid parental leave is a hallmark of civilized societies that financially support family values. It is laudable that the City of New York wishes to be included in those ranks, starting by mandating paid parental leave for city managerial employees. But the de Blasio administration does so by having those employees pay for it themselves with a reduction in their next scheduled pay increase and the loss of two vacation days for some. That's hardly an act of a progressive employer.

Many of the managerial employees being covered by the mayor's executive order are not high-salaried executives. Some are managers whose pay starts at $57,210 annually, which translates to $27.50 per hour. City managers with 20, even 30 years of service have passed a series of civil service tests that they must pay to take. Still, some are barely making a living wage.

Most are not policy makers, this work is done by elected officials and agency commissioners. Instead, the managers make sure that the service goals set by the policy makers are met. They are the policy implementers who keep our city running 24/7 no matter who the elected officials and their top-level appointees, who largely most over $200,000 per year.

An adult with one child making $27.40 per hour barely qualifies as making living wage according to the Living Wage Calculator for New York County designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT calculator was used in determining that the minimum wage should be a living wage of $15 per hour. A $15 hourly minimum wage is strongly supported by the de Blasio administration, as evidenced by the mayor's recently announced plan to move all city employees to that minimum over the next couple of years.

De Blasio believes that all those in the private sector, like entry-level fast food workers, should soon make a minimum of $15 per hour too.

Shouldn't the minimum be something more for managers who oversee the spending of millions of tax dollars for vital city services? After years of service, shouldn't those managers be well above $27.40 per hour? And, when we rightfully seek to expand family leave benefits to those managers, shouldn't they not have to sacrifice pay increases?

Cheating city managers out of a full pay increase to pay for a progressive policy like paid family leave challenges the credibility of the city's true commitment to the new parental leave policy. Back in Jamaica, Queens where I grew up it is called "putting your money where your mouth is," which is what I want to see the City do on paid family leave.

The current scheme forces managers to buy their own paid family leave and therefore reduces its impact. Paid family leave is a progressive policy - making employees pay for it is not.

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Arthur Cheliotes is President of CWA Local 1180, a municipal union representing more than 8,500 workers and 6,200 retirees. Most work in one of dozens of New York City mayoral agencies; others at the Department of Education, Health and Hospitals Corporation, NYCHA, the Transit Authority, the School Construction Authority, and the state's Unified Court System.

More Evidence Punitive NYPD Youth Programs Fail


Bratton NYPD

(photo via @NYPDnews)

 


 

This week the New York Times revealed the content of an internal NYPD report showing that a much lauded juvenile crime program doesn’t work. It’s yet another example of misguided punitive policing, offering little by way of actual progress.

Originally developed under the title “Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program” (J-RIP), it targets past juvenile offenders in hopes of preventing future crime. The original J-RIP program, which began in Brownsville in 2007 and expanded to East Harlem in 2009, targeted juvenile robbery offenders who were back in the community. These youths were given a clear message that they were under enhanced police supervision and would face significant consequences if rearrested. They were also offered mentoring and a few support services by police in hopes of steering them in the right direction.

In practice, the program offered little in the way of services. Young people were given a chance to participate in existing programs like the Police Athletic League (PAL) and were regularly visited by uniformed officers in their homes and on the streets. While these officers were supposed to be acting as mentors and monitors, defense lawyers reported that officers sometimes used these visits as a pretext to conduct searches and that they sometimes called attention to program relationships in front of other youth, potentially marking them as informants—a dangerous label in these neighborhoods.

No real services, such as job placement or family counseling were provided, and the officers involved had no special social services training, playing a primarily surveillance and enforcement role.

In April of 2014, NYPD Chief Joanne Jaffe, who developed the program, spoke at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, where she lauded J-RIP as being highly effective. She provided data that showed that over the course of the program robberies in the targeted areas had fallen significantly. What she did not discuss, but the November 2014 NYPD evaluation report makes clear, is that the decline mirrored city-wide trends and that J-RIP participants were rearrested at the same or higher rates than youth with similar records in the same and nearby neighborhoods without J-RIP.

Even though the 2014 report showed there were no crime reductions under J-RIP, the NYPD has moved forward with an expansion of the program in a different guise.

In early 2015, the NYPD rolled out NYC Ceasefire, under the leadership of Susan Herman, Deputy Commissioner for Collaborative Policing. The new version focuses more on gun crimes and adds group “call-in” meetings in which the targeted youth are brought in and lectured by police and community members about the harmful effects of their violent actions and the potential enhanced consequences of additional violent offenses. They are then placed under extensive surveillance regimes and targeted for enhanced punishments if caught re-offending. They are also offered some minimal services, primarily in the form of a centralized referral phone number run by a local non-profit that is there to link young people to already existing programs.

J-RIP and NYC Ceasefire are both examples of “Focused Deterrence” programs. Developed by criminologist David Kennedy, and first implemented in Boston in 1996, they attempt to stop gun violence or other serious crime through intensive and targeted enforcement combined with support services.

Ideally this model begins with a community mobilization effort in partnership with local police. The goal is to send a unified message to young people that serious crime will no longer be tolerated. If it occurs, they will use every resource at their disposal (“pulling levers”) to not only apprehend the assailant but to disrupt the street life of young people involved in crime across the board. The hope is that young people will choose to avoid violence so that they can concentrate on socializing and low level criminality free of constant police harassment. This is based on research that showed that a great deal of shooting was not drug or robbery related but involved a constant tit for tat of revenge gunfire by rival factions of young people engaged primarily in turf battles.

The key is to break that cycle of retribution and gun carrying. To achieve this, young people believed to be involved in violence are called into meetings with local police and community leaders and threatened with intensive surveillance and enforcement if the gun violence doesn’t stop. These “call ins” are made possible in part because many of these young people are on probation or parole for past offenses.

In addition to more intensive enforcement efforts, there is usually an effort to develop some targeted social services with the hope that this will help draw some of these young people away from violence and towards education and employment opportunities.

This approach relies primarily on intensive punitive enforcement efforts such as surveillance, investigations, arrests, and intensified prosecutions. Also, the social services offered tend to be very thin, involving some counseling and recreational opportunities but rarely access to actual jobs or advanced educational placements.

Some youth are able to get GEDs and access some social programs, but very few wind up with jobs, much less well-paying or stable ones. In some cases the focus is on a variety of life skills and socialization classes which do nothing to create real opportunities for people and reinforce the ethos of personal responsibility that often ends up blaming the victim for their unemployment and educational failure in a community that tends to be incredibly poor, underserved, segregated, and dangerous.

Evaluation research of these programs does show some meaningful declines in crime that can even last for years. Overall, though, the results are quite thin. Most reductions are small, occur in only a few crime categories, and don’t last very long. They also continue to reinforce a punitive mindset about how to deal with young people in high crime, high poverty communities, most of whom are not white.

It is certainly true that violent crime is heavily concentrated among a fairly small population of young people in specific neighborhoods. It makes more sense to target them than indiscriminately stopping and frisking or arresting and summonsing hundreds of thousands of young people who have either done nothing wrong or engaged in minor misbehavior. Despite the claims of the Broken Windows theory, there really isn’t a strong connection between the two groups.

The problem lies not in the targeting, but in the methods used. Most young people who engage in serious criminality are already living in harsh and dangerous circumstances. They are fearful of other youth, abusive family members, and the prospect of a future of joblessness and poverty. They don’t need more threats and punishment in their lives.

They need stability, positive guidance, and real pathways out of poverty. This requires a long-term commitment to their well-being, not a telephone referral and home visits by the same people who arrest and harass them and their friends on the streets. It was Bill Bratton, in his first stint as NYPD commissioner, who pointed out that police officers are not social workers, they’re not trained for it, nor prepared for it, and that’s not their role. Why would they be the best-suited for engaging these young people as mentors or life skills trainers? They aren’t.

It makes much more sense to do two types of things.

First, we have to have a real conversation about entrenched racialized poverty concentrated in highly-segregated neighborhoods. These are the neighborhoods that continue to be the main source of violent crime problems. It is true that crime has declined overall without major reductions in poverty or segregation, but it’s also true that the crime that remains is concentrated in these areas. And, unlike aggressive policing and mass incarceration, doing something about racialized poverty and exclusion would have general benefits for society in terms of reducing poverty, inequality, and racial injustice.

Second, we need to use peer-based mentoring systems and outreach workers, who can talk to people from a shared position of living in one of these neighborhoods. The power of that connection for building credibility cannot be overstated. Recently, Mayor de Blasio has expanded a number of City Council-developed initiatives to use violence interrupters and other community-based and public health-oriented interventions to reduce gun violence.

So-called “cure violence” programs like SOS Crown Heights, and GMACC in East Flatbush are training young adults to break the cycle of violence through rumor control, gang truces, and ongoing engagement with youth out on the streets. They provide safe spaces for young people to talk out their problems and when well-funded, provide real services to them and their families to deal with problems of housing, education, and unemployment, as well as mental illness and substance abuse.

It’s time for Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD to abandon NYC Ceasefire and other focused deterrence initiatives that primarily criminalize young people. We already know that jails and prisons produce much worse life outcomes for these youth. Let’s stop relying on coercion and control and try more compassion and concern.

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Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale

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Time for the Mayor and the Governor to Work Together


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De Blasio and Cuomo, via the Governor's Office


They are elected to lead millions of people, to handle billions of taxpayer dollars, and to develop effective public policy. To be as effective as possible, they must work together.

Yet, they barely speak to each other and won't even say each other's name in public.

There is simply no way that the ongoing feud between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio isn't hurting New Yorkers. The behavior of the two men - New York City's top two elected leaders - is beneath the esteem of their offices.

A leading advocate, Mary Brosnahan of Coalition for the Homeless, put it perfectly in an interview with Politico New York: "They're both very smart people, let's just lower the testosterone and ramp up the cooperation. It just kills me to see homeless New Yorkers being played like pawns in the middle of it."

Lately, it has been homeless people as pawns, but it has been all New Yorkers at some point over the past two years.

Sure, the feud can be the source of fun for observers, even for the governor and his team, it seems. But, there are legitimate policy issues, livelihoods, and lives at stake. It's well past time for Cuomo and de Blasio to work together more closely. And there are steps, beyond the recent dinner they shared, that can easily be taken - if they care enough to try.

The already toxic relationship took a turn for the worse when, in a now-infamous airing of grievances, de Blasio criticized the governor to the press at length on June 30. Remarkable for several reasons, de Blasio's words seemed to indicate he was giving up on the prospects of a strong working relationship with his former boss and longtime friend.

Still, in November, Cuomo defied what observers were seeing when he said, "The relationship is good...This is a professional relationship."

The governor added what appears to be nothing short of a lie, saying: "We coordinate the best we can."

Perhaps Cuomo's statement was true if by "can" he was implying 'given the fact that we are both more concerned with our petty feud than with working for the people of New York.'

When it has come to a series of issues: Ebola, the MTA, Legionnaires' Disease, homelessness, and more, the city and state have clearly not been coordinating "the best" they could.

Of course members of the two administrations talk with each other all the time and coordinate on a variety of public policy matters - there are major day-to-day operations that necessitate this. But, it is abundantly clear that the collaboration is not as strong as it could or should be.

Beyond beginning to speak more regularly by phone and in person, de Blasio and Cuomo could start regularly appearing at events together. Giving the semblance of a working relationship would at least instill more confidence that the two leaders have one and are not being negligent. A little bit of casual conversation, as the two had while awaiting the Pope in September, can only help repair the relationship.

Cuomo and de Blasio don't have to immediately hold joint announcements, they could simply share space when they're due to speak at the same event, something it appears they've avoided with intent.

But, they could hold joint events immediately and start to move beyond The Feud. De Blasio is set to make a minimum wage announcement Wednesday - Cuomo should be there and have a speaking role. Then, de Blasio should be similarly welcomed to Cuomo's next minimum wage rally in the city (he's been conspicuously absent from several). Also Wednesday, Cuomo is expected to announce a renovation plan for Penn Station - de Blasio should be there, not absent like he was when Cuomo announced plans for a new LaGaurdia Airport.

The two Wednesday events are, of course, scheduled for the same time: 2 p.m.

On Thursday, de Blasio is set to sign an executive order mandating paid parental leave for some city employees. Cuomo should be there, too, and he should use the occasion to praise the mayor and explain his intention to push a statewide paid family leave policy.

Though they have very different styles and somewhat different political philosophies, Cuomo and de Blasio actually agree on quite a bit and could find many ways to truly work together. The two should soon hold a joint announcement after coming to a New York/New York IV supportive housing deal.

They missed a good opportunity to show a united front when they came to an agreement on MTA capital plan funding in October after a prolonged and too-public dispute.

But, as they go down a similar road on homelessness, wouldn't it be refreshing if early in the new year Cuomo and de Blasio could coordinate policy and hold a joint press conference to explain how they are going to work together to improve shelter conditions, get people off the streets and into housing, and keep people from becoming homeless in the first place?

Like you, I am not holding my breath for such an announcement or for any of the joint appearances outlined above.

As the New York Times editorial board wrote in late November, "In a better world, the mayor and governor would be mutually supportive allies working together to ease the suffering of tens of thousands of homeless residents of the state's most important city. But in reality, the two men are stuck in a malfunctioning relationship that has turned once-routine city-state partnerships and problem-solving exercises into an unusually fraught psychodrama."

On Monday, the mayor was faced with a barrage of questions from reporters about the homelessness-related executive order the governor had issued with little warning to the de Blasio administration. It has become something of a pattern, state action without coordinating with the city, the governor showing the mayor who is in charge.

"We are very willing to work with the state," de Blasio said in response to a question about why he and his old colleague couldn't simply get together and hash out joint homelessness policy.

Being willing to work together is very different, obviously, from proactively seeking opportunities to mend fences and move forward for the good of the people of the city and state.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

Ending the Revolving Door of Homelessness


swann homelessness revolving door

Patricia Swann, the author


While Mayor Bill de Blasio works on the details of a 15-year, $2.6 billion supportive housing program to address homelessness, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is creating a statewide plan to reduce homelessness. New York should draw on approaches that have helped in the past as well as those that seem promising, especially supportive housing, which offers job training, debt counseling, mental health care, and other crucial services to residents in an effort to stop the revolving door of homelessness.

We all have to start by acknowledging reality: homelessness is a chronic New York problem, as we can tell from walking the streets or reviewing simple statistics. On any given night the number of people sleeping in shelters is close to 60,000 -- 25,000 are children.

New Yorkers fatigued by the crisis tend to identify it with street dwellers – often middle-aged men with substance-abuse or mental health issues. The truth is that homelessness is rising among families, younger men and women, and the working poor.

The one-two punch keeps getting worse: housing costs are exorbitant while wages are stagnant. Last year, 30.1 percent of the city’s renters paid more than half their incomes in rent. The result: New York City saw 26,857 evictions in 2014.

So much for de-stigmatizing homelessness — the reality is that these are our neighbors and coworkers.

The urgent question is, what works?

In the past 20 years, the New York Community Trust has given about $30 million to nonprofits addressing different aspects of the problem. One proven approach is not simply to increase shelters but to create permanent supportive housing for lower-income New Yorkers. That includes on-site services for medical and physical disabilities, HIV-related illnesses, and mental and substance-abuse disorders. This housing should coordinate with nearby groups that provide other basics, including childhood education centers, employment and financial training, health and substance-abuse clinics, open spaces, access to quality food, libraries and cultural venues.

Studies show such supportive housing cuts taxpayer costs while helping vulnerable people become productive citizens. In the past, the state and city split the cost of supportive housing as well as stronger protections for existing low-cost housing; we hope they will resume that agreement.

Still, it takes years for new units to come online, and meanwhile nearly 60,000 people subsist in shelters that the city’s Department of Investigation calls dilapidated. We need to test alternate strategies. That’s why the Trust is funding an initiative called Gateway Housing, a coalition of nonprofits that run city shelters. Under Gateway, the nonprofits are committed to working with the city and state to rebuild shelters.

More important, they’ll use proven practices and undergo regular evaluations of their social-services programs. Because a strong community is critical to addressing homelessness, Gateway seeks to make shelters integral to neighborhoods.

We have learned that well-directed money can deliver lasting results. For example, we’ve funded several groups that had success in assisting families deal with rising housing costs — by freezing rents for the elderly and disabled, or by providing emergency aid and financial counseling to low-wage New Yorkers. Many times, a head of family who loses a job or is dealing with a health crisis needs just a few weeks’ aid to avoid eviction.

The Trust also funds a promising initiative called Joint-Ownership Entity. Under that model, nonprofit developers — the same organizations that saved the South Bronx, eastern and central Brooklyn, and northern Manhattan from disappearing into rubble in the late seventies — are combining developments into single-ownership entities. This should help them achieve economies of scale in running and maintaining their properties, keep rents down, and generate revenue for services. These nonprofit developers are important neighborhood anchors; if not for the housing they manage at affordable rents, many of the residents would become homeless.

We’re not naïve: No one can end homelessness in an expensive city with persistent pockets of poverty. But by finding ways to keep rents affordable in some neighborhoods, supporting those facing temporary financial setbacks, and offering job training, substance-abuse counseling, and other wraparound services, we can buttress thousands of New Yorkers who are trying to provide a stable home to their families.

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Patricia A. Swann is a Senior Program Officer for Community Development at the New York Community Trust. On Twitter @NYCommTrust.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

New York City Needs Supervised Injection Facilities


mccray bassett thrivenyc

First Lady McCray & Health Comm. Bassett (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


There is a hot topic trending in the debate over the war on drugs: should there be safe places for intravenous drug users to inject? A panel of experts from around the world convened a symposium in New York City to share their experiences and the panelists and their sponsor, VOCAL NY, called for such a facility in the city. They are completely correct.

There are an estimated 100 supervised injection facilities worldwide and advocates credit them with reducing both overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases (HIV and hepatitis C). These facilities offer clean needles, a sterile environment, and emergency services in the case of an overdose. They also provide education, counseling, access to treatment, and other services that might save users' lives.

Without such refuge, addicts resort to "whatever it takes" to get high and the resulting health problems resonate throughout society by way of the spread of infectious disease and the death of loved ones.

The rise in heroin, the primary drug used via injection, is well-documented and New York is no exception. Staten Island is the borough hardest hit by the heroin epidemic; 74 people there died of overdose in 2014. Many heroin users began by taking prescription painkillers that are chemically similar and after becoming addicted find that heroin is cheaper and easier to obtain.

Mayor de Blasio traveled to Staten Island in early December to announce measures addressing the heroin crisis there. He has made naloxone, an overdose antidote, available in pharmacies without a prescription and promised to increase the availability of substance abuse treatment by licensing more physicians to prescribe maintenance drugs that dull the cravings for heroin.

These are good steps. We still need supervised injection facilities.

Naloxone does not prevent overdoses which can occur from the improvised situations that users often find themselves in. Supervised facilities prevent overdoses by providing an environment that is cleaner and less chaotic than, say, a gas station restroom.

The spread of infectious disease through unsanitary conditions and instruments represents an even deadlier and widespread threat than overdose - infected users spread disease to unsuspecting loved ones, often through sexual intercourse.

One of the thorniest problems in combating illegal drugs is the fact that they are illegal and addicts, because they are punished, deplored, and shamed for their disease, live in the shadows, apart from mainstream society. Supervised facilities provide a place where they are not judged. Staff, often recovered addicts who understand their dire situation, can offer users a path out of their misery and provide education on infectious diseases and methods of prevention.

Supervised injection facilities are one example of the "harm reduction strategy" towards substance abuse. Needle exchanges are another example; they accept the fact that users will utilize infected needles if that is their only choice, but respect that users are intelligent and prefer clean needles if they are available. The immediate result of needle exchanges is fewer persons infected with HIV and Hepatitis C, thus the harm of addiction is reduced. New York City has 15 needle exchanges, but only one on Staten Island and, sad to say, no one is asking for more.

The harm reduction strategy is the polar opposite of the 50-year-long "war on drugs" which was lost long ago, though few will admit it. Throughout the world opinion is shifting towards decriminalizing all drugs. A recent draft United Nations report recommended decriminalizing drugs and Portugal did so about ten years ago with no discernible detriment to civil society.

A recent editorial in the Staten Island Advance excoriated the idea of safe places like supervised injection facilities, saying that they encourage more drug use - but they do not; they encourage safe drug use.

It is the plain fact that many thousands of people, without any encouragement, are seeking out heroin for any number of reasons. On Staten Island, and throughout New York City, it is time to tear down the walls that separate us, bring users in from the cold, and offer them whatever help we can.

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Christopher Beall works at a criminal justice nonprofit in the Bronx and is on Twitter @JailedintheUSA.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? E-mail editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A Family-Centered Approach to Homelessness Policy


ralph homes for the homeless

Ralph da Costa Nunez, the author


The first two years of the de Blasio administration have been marked by a continued rise in the number of homeless children and adults, along with the resignation of both the deputy mayor for health and human services and the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services. The Mayor's announcement of a comprehensive operational review of the city's homeless programs may be labeled by some as a sign of a system in crisis. However, the administration may actually be poised to seize this opportunity and radically overhaul the ineffective policies and practices of the past. The key question is: to what end?

Homeless children and their parents make up 70 percent of all the homeless individuals in the system. Tonight over 17,000 homeless parents with almost 24,000 children will call a shelter or a welfare hotel home. The sensational aspects of their problems routinely make headlines and overwhelm politicians, civic leaders, and taxpayers alike. It is time for those responsible for delivering the city's homeless services to face the facts about families—the majority of the city's homeless—who presently spend an average of 15 months living in shelter.

After serving 140,000 individuals over the past 30 years, most of whom were children, we at Homes for the Homeless have faced the facts. We've learned a thing or two about who homeless families are and what it takes to move them permanently into stable housing. The central lesson, contrary to popular belief, is that simply doling out government rental assistance or housing vouchers will not solve homelessness for most families. Our policymakers have to stop pretending that putting a roof over a family's head for a few months or even a year 'ends homelessness.' It doesn't. Over 60 percent of the families rehoused by the city have returned to shelter.

Truly solving homelessness will require we move from an emergency response to a triage response.

There are essentially three types of homeless families: (1) those parents over 25 who have work, tenancy, and life experience; (2) those parents under 25 who want to complete their education, start a work life, and get help with parenting; and (3) those parents who are first and foremost confronting severe challenges such as domestic violence, child welfare and neglect, substance abuse, and mental health issues. For the past 30 years, every administration's policies to combat family homelessness have been based on a 'one size fits all' rehousing strategy. The untainted truth is that homeless families are not all alike, their challenges and opportunities are not the same.

Anyone who has worked on the front lines in family shelters will tell you that the current system does not work and never will.

Providing housing to families not prepared to obtain, maintain, and retain their housing or their job results in repeated returns to the shelter system, which is both disruptive to the family and costly to the taxpayer.

The entire shelter system must be triaged into a network of specialized facilities that meet the needs of the three types of homeless families: (1) short-stay shelters to rapidly rehouse families who have work and tenancy experience and the highest probability of a successful transition; (2) intermediate-stay sites would provide mandatory literacy and job training to improve job readiness and retention, as well as job placement; and (3) highly specialized facilities would be equipped to tackle the severe chronic social issues plaguing the most vulnerable homeless families who find themselves homeless over and over again.

The efficiencies to be gained by such a reorganization would be enormous: the demand for shelter, the length of stay in shelter, the rate of return to shelter, and the cost of shelter would all decline.

So while the truth about homeless families is a bit more complicated than one would like, reorganizing the existing system to meet their actual needs is ground in common sense. Redirecting a misguided system requires strong political will and bold leadership. The time for a new and sensible approach is here.

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Ralph da Costa Nunez is president and CEO of Homes for the Homeless, a social services provider that serves about 430 homeless families each night in the Bronx and Queens. Ralph is also president and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, a nonprofit that studies the impact of public policies on homeless families, particularly children.