Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/276 Thu, 29 Oct 2020 08:43:59 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) As De Blasio Promises WiFi in Shelters to Help Homeless Children Learn, Advocates Question Tardiness and Implementation https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9862-de-blasio-promises-wifi-shelters-homeless-children-learn-advocates-question-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9862-de-blasio-promises-wifi-shelters-homeless-children-learn-advocates-question-plan back ch ric

Remote learning in action (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Amid widespread criticism about a lack of internet access for students in homeless shelters who need to get online more than ever to complete their school work, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would equip every shelter with WiFi. But advocates are raising questions about execution of that pledge, especially as tens of thousands of students living in shelters need internet access now in order to engage in remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite de Blasio’s promise, issued Monday, to “ensure that every shelter gets WiFi,” no concrete plan for implementation has been offered publicly, though the mayor said Tuesday that he has one that will be shared.

“The instruction I have given to the Law Department and to Social Services is to ensure that every shelter gets Wi-Fi,” de Blasio said Monday. “We’ve got to stop this and make sure everyone has what they need. In terms of devices, I want to keep emphasizing, one, any parent, any kid with a problem should call 311 and let us know immediately.”

“Children in our shelters desperately need assistance with remote learning and have never received the tools they need to succeed from Mayor Bill de Blasio or the NYC Department of Education,” said Christine Quinn, the former City Council Speaker who is now the president and CEO of Win, New York City’s largest provider of shelter and support services for homeless women and their children, in a statement reacting to de Blasio’s pledge.

“We have worked tirelessly to make up the gap, hiring in-house technical support staff to navigate the Department of Education’s (DOE) service and using grant dollars to privately fund iPads, laptops, and hot spots to our students,” said Quinn.

Although the de Blasio administration did release its longtime-coming “Internet Master Plan” in January, and announced an acceleration of it in July amid the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to provide universal broadband access to city residents, the plan did not specifically mention homeless shelters, according to the New York City Bar Association, in an August press release.

The plan prioritized public housing developments, “which have suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the mayor’s July press release said. As well as investing “$157 million in ending digital redlining and providing high-speed internet,” and using “$87 million redirected from the NYPD budget.”

The Bar Association cited a recent report from its Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless that found that “75 percent of surveyed shelter residents agreed that internet access would help improve their circumstances.” According to the report, “67 percent of homeless shelter residents wanted but had no regular access to the internet, and only 6 percent were able to access the internet through their shelters.”

In that August statement, the Bar Association called on the de Blasio administration to “prioritize City residents most impacted by the pandemic and to provide reliable Wi-Fi connections to shelter residents, updated Internet-ready devices,” and “Wireless or Bluetooth printers.”

Although advocates and others have demanded de Blasio detail plans to help students in shelters access Wi-Fi since the start of the pandemic, the mayor has not focused on wiring up shelters, instead pointing to the hundreds of thousands of internet-enabled devices that the city has been giving out to students in and out of shelters upon request, though tens of thousands of students are still awaiting those devices as the new school year continues toward November. Then came his shelter promise on Monday, seemingly provoked by a Daily News report about lack of access and devices.

In a letter written to de Blasio and the Department of Education (DOE) by City Comptroller Scott Stringer at the start of the school year, Stringer urged the city to “provide direct support to the over 100,000 children who experience homelessness each year.”

In his letter, Stringer called on the City to “designate an interagency Director of Students in Temporary Housing charged with addressing the educational needs of this vulnerable population.” 

The de Blasio administration launched the Learning Bridges program, which provides a free child care option for some children in 3-K through 8th grade who are in the blended learning model on days they are doing remote learning, with access pending application and a needs hierarchy the city established. However, “if these sites are not located near shelters, many students who most need these spaces may not be able to access them,” Stringer wrote.

Meanwhile, “City policy prohibits any child under the age of 18 from remaining in a shelter unit without a parent,” Stringer noted, especially relevant given that Learning Bridges is not available to high school-aged students.

“There's such a stigma for teenagers and youth for being homeless. That became a big benefit from having WiFi,” said Ted Houghton, President of Gateway Housing, a non-profit that works with homeless shelters in the city, including through a technical assistance program to help providers bring Wi-Fi to shelters. 

With a lack of stable internet access in homeless shelters and not every student equipped with an internet-enabled device from the city, some children are unable to log on for their remote classes, leading to questions about school administrators who may report the parents for the virtual truancy. 

“That is not a situation of neglect,” de Blasio said during his Monday press briefing, when asked about that possibility and pledging to rectify the internet access gap. “If a family is trying to solve a problem, we should be working with them and not giving them the impression that we are judging them negatively,” the mayor added.

Gateway Housing, which has worked with BronxWorks, CAMBA, and Help USA to equip shelters with Wi-Fi, saw both “an increase in the number of families going online, and an increase in “the amount of participation in virtual learning,” said Houghton.

Another concern, Houghton said, surrounds the monthly cost of Wi-Fi once it is installed in shelters with families.

“Each of these buildings is going to have what is essentially a corporate Wi-Fi account and that starts adding up,” said Houghton. “We do not want to see an unfunded mandate to shelter providers, because there is a cost associated with internet service.”

“You're talking about small shelters that might cost $10,000 to wire, very large shelters, some of which are spread out among many different buildings, that are going to cost more than $100,000,” Houghton added.

Responding to de Blasio’s initial announcement, attorneys representing homeless New Yorkers questioned the mayor’s commitment.

"The devil is in the details, and while we welcome this announcement, too much time has passed with too little action for us to accept it at face value,” said Susan Horwitz, Supervising Attorney of the Education Law Project at The Legal Aid Society, in a statement released Tuesday, wherein Legal Aid called on the de Blasio administration to quickly detail how it will get WiFi installed at all city shelters.

“City Hall should have addressed this issue several months ago,” she said.

“There is a plan in place,” de Blasio said Tuesday when asked at his daily press briefing about the criticism from Legal Aid and others. “We'll certainly go over it publicly. The idea here is to go through every shelter where there's kids. Obviously we have shelters that are adults only, that doesn't count, but shelters where there are kids get Wi-Fi in place. Some shelters that's going to be easier than others, depending on the physical reality. I want to make sure the kids have options immediately so they can study wherever they need to. So we'll lay out the plan and what it's going to take, what we're going to do short-term, what it's going to take to get every single shelter done. That's a commitment we make. Our IT department, DoITT, is leading the way, working with our Department of Social Services, and we will make sure every shelter has services. It’s as simple as that.”

Asked to provide the administration’s plan, the mayor’s press office did not respond to Gotham Gazette’s inquiry.

[Read: De Blasio Administration Pledges to Finally Address City's Persistent 'Digital Divide' with Universal Internet Access]

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by Anna Conkling, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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As De Blasio Promises WiFi in Shelters to Help Homeless Children Learn, Advocates Question Tardiness and Implementation Tue, 27 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Upper West Side Saga Exposes City’s Ongoing Failures on Housing and Homelessness https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9825-upper-west-side-saga-city-ongoing-failures-housing-homelessness https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9825-upper-west-side-saga-city-ongoing-failures-housing-homelessness city wilnon dev

Mayor de Blasio addressing housing plans (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office)


New York City’s recent refusal to stand up to wealthy Upper West Siders is just another instance in an unending pattern of failures on housing and homelessness. 

The saga of the Lucerne is emblematic of the interplay between the powerful and the powerless in New York City. In an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, the de Blasio administration (after fierce advocacy from the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign) moved thousands of unhoused people from crowded shelters where social distancing is impossible to unused hotel rooms—one such hotel being the Lucerne on the Upper West Side. 

Just days after the Lucerne welcomed its new residents, a now-15,000 member private Facebook group called Upper West Siders for Safer Streets formed, calling for the unhoused men at the Lucerne to be removed from the neighborhood, referring to them as “scum'' and “trash.” At the same time, UWS Open Hearts Initiative, a coalition of Upper West Siders committed to “compassion in our backyard,” organized to support the men at the Lucerne.

While the emergency nature of the move created some difficulties on the front-end, the shelter provider swiftly addressed community concerns through increased staffing and on-site services. Organizations like UWS Open Hearts Initiative also stepped up to provide supplemental support and resources and serve as a model for shelter-community integration.

Nonetheless, Mayor Bill de Blasio caved to the monied voices of the Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, and now the men are slated to be moved from the Lucerne to a hotel in the Wall Street area.

The city’s failure to prioritize the wellbeing of the men at the Lucerne is not an isolated incident and represents a consistent lack of leadership on housing and homelessness. As of July 2020, 58,089 New Yorkers were sleeping in the city Department of Homeless Services-run shelters each night—a sizable increase from the 53,615 New Yorkers sleeping in such shelters when de Blasio took office in January 2014.

But, it’s important to remember that our homelessness crisis is fueled by our affordable housing crisis—they are intrinsically linked. The deference that the city has shown to exclusionary neighborhoods like the Upper West Side has greatly contributed to our affordable housing crisis.

The city itself conducted a study on Mayor de Blasio’s housing strategy that found that building affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods like the Upper West Side could create more affordable units at a lower cost to the city. However, as the city’s affordable housing map shows, this advice went ignored.

When compared to Brooklyn Community Board 5 in East New York and Bronx Community Board 3 in the South Bronx, Manhattan Community Board 7 in the Upper West Side is an affordable housing desert. Below is a breakdown of the new affordable housing constructed since Mayor de Blasio took office in each of these areas:

msland chart copy

Not only has the Upper West Side constructed far less new affordable housing than Brooklyn CB5 and Bronx CB3, but it has hardly created any new affordable housing for tenants of extremely low (30% of AMI) or very low (50% of AMI) income. 

Furthermore, the bulk of newly-constructed affordable housing units on the Upper West Side are on its outskirts—the borders with Morningside Heights in the north and Hell’s Kitchen in the south. Only a single new affordable unit has been built in the heart of the Upper West Side, at 214 West 72nd Street.

In fact, data indicates that the Upper West Side isn’t just diametrically opposed to housing the men at the Lucerne, housing the homeless, or even affordable housing in general, but rather all new housing. Since 2010, the Upper West Side has actually lost housing—in the midst of an affordable housing crisis.

Rather than following its own advice and building affordable housing in neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, the de Blasio administration has deferred to the wealthy interests of those neighborhoods and maintained their status quo.

Neighborhoods like the Upper West Side have played a direct role in our city’s homelessness and housing crisis. It is time for them to take responsibility, and that starts with housing people experiencing homelessness in their neighborhood, and continues with building new affordable housing there too. 

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Michael Sutherland is a Research & Policy Associate at Housing Rights Initiative. On Twitter @msuthnyc & @housingrightsny.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Upper West Side Saga Exposes City’s Ongoing Failures on Housing and Homelessness Wed, 14 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Controversy Over Homeless Shelters on the Upper West Side https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9730-max-murphy-podcast-controversy-homeless-shelters-upper-west-side https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9730-max-murphy-podcast-controversy-homeless-shelters-upper-west-side deb rosen uws 600

Mayor de Blasio & Council Member Rosenthal at a town hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


September 2, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Controversy Over Homeless Shelters on the Upper West Side

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal and Melissa Sanchez of Upper West Side Open Hearts Initiative joined the show to discuss the controversy around new homeless shelters on the Upper West Side.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

Max & Murphy · Episode 246: Controversy Over Homeless Shelters On The Upper WestSide

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Controversy Over Homeless Shelters on the Upper West Side Wed, 02 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Homelessness, Housing, and the Upper West Side https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9711-homelessness-housing-and-the-upper-west-side https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9711-homelessness-housing-and-the-upper-west-side cm raf sala

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


I spent a good portion of my childhood and adolescence around the intersection of West 79th and Amsterdam, whether it was with my parents or friends’ parents at Bagels & Co., or picking up snacks at the Duane Reade or Insomnia, or covertly eating non-kosher at Island Burgers. So it has been deeply saddening for me to see such a cornerstone of my neighborhood be turned into a rallying cry for reactionary hatred. The temporary sheltering of a few hundred homeless people in the Lucerne, the Belleclaire, and the Belnord is the least that the Upper West Side, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere, can do. Especially when the alternative is overcrowded, understaffed city shelters where COVID-19 could spread easily.

That’s the reality that seems to be lost on groups like Upper West Siders for Safer Streets, a Facebook page whose members have called for, among other things, smearing excrement on city benches to keep away homeless people and using fireworks to clear out homeless encampments: that we are living in extraordinary times. Just this weekend, America passed 5 million covid cases and 150,000 covid deaths. If otherwise-empty hotels can be used to help reduce covid vulnerability of existing shelters, then it should be done. With shelters recording a 60% higher rate of infection over the city, as Pablo Zevallos wrote last week, “social distancing...is a life-or-death matter for the homeless.”

Admittedly, plenty of my neighbors do understand this. They instead argue that they are being forced by the city to sacrifice their community for the sake of health. And to these people I have to ask: what sacrifice? According to NYPD data, crime on the Upper West Side is either flat or down year-over-year across all categories. By any metric, the Upper West Side remains the safest neighborhood in Manhattan. Just this weekend I passed by two Guardian Angels on the corner of my block, a block on which I have never, in my entire life, been witness to a crime. Contrary to the apparent beliefs of many members of the Safer Streets Facebook group, not every person of color you don’t recognize is homeless, nor are they committing a crime.

There is a growing sentiment among my neighbors, though, that being homeless is in-and-of-itself a crime. Whether people realize it or not, this is the sentiment behind worrying about, for example, public urination (real quick, give me the location of a 24-hour public restroom on the Upper West Side). My point here is not that public urination is a desirable outcome - of course it isn’t. It is, however, the natural consequence of having a very large population of homeless people and few public restrooms. Bear in mind, too, that New York is the only city in the country with a right-to-shelter law, which stipulates exactly what the name suggests: the city is required by law to house everyone. COVID-19 aside, there have never been enough shelters to fulfill this requirement, so the city has turned to hotels. Again - housing homeless people in hotels is not a desirable outcome, but it is the natural consequence of not having built enough housing.

And this is an area where our neighborhood has clearly failed. I’ve always found it funny that Mayor de Blasio is blamed for everything bad that happens on the Upper West Side when his housing policy has left our neighborhood virtually untouched. Since 2014, the city has constructed just one affordable building north of 62nd Street. This is not because of the high cost of housing on the Upper West Side. Aaron Carr, founder of the Housing Rights Initiative, pointed out that the city’s own report on affordable housing found that expensive markets are actually better for affordable housing construction. This way, private developers can more easily defray the cost of affordable units with more expensive, market-rate units. So why, then, has the city built so much affordable housing in lower-income neighborhoods like East Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant and nothing in higher-income neighborhoods like the Upper West Side? The Lucerne is the answer. As Carr put it: “The backlash against the hotels is part of a broader pattern of exclusion.” Upper West Siders do not want new housing, so no new housing has been built.

But there is no other way to resolve this crisis. Shelter is, quite literally, the most basic human need, and there is no other way to help homeless New Yorkers get their lives back on track. It is high time that neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, wealthy even by the standards of the richest city in America, contribute to ending our housing crisis. That’s why I’m an active member of Open New York, a group fighting to bring more housing to wealthy neighborhoods so that more people can afford to live in New York City.

We’re currently working to upzone SoHo, but the same arguments apply equally well to the Upper West Side. More housing in the wealthiest neighborhoods will create more funding for affordable housing, increase integration, and take displacement pressures off vulnerable, less-privileged areas of the city. We live in a neighborhood that millions of Americans can only dream of: good schools, safe streets, and beautiful parks, right in the heart of the economic engine of the world. Instead of building walls around what we are fortunate enough to have, we should open our doors and give others the chance to share in it.

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Jonathan Lindenbaum is a lifelong Upper West Side resident and member of Open New York. On Twitter @urbaneurban.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Homelessness, Housing, and the Upper West Side Wed, 26 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
We Must Avoid a Repeat of the Battle Between Upper West Siders and Homeless New Yorkers https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9700-homeless-new-yorkers-upper-west-side-supportive-housing https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9700-homeless-new-yorkers-upper-west-side-supportive-housing hope survey hud

The mayor carrying out the HOPE count (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


It’s a shame that the city’s well-intentioned efforts to stop COVID-19 from spreading throughout homeless shelters turned negative so quickly. After relocating thousands of shelter residents into hotels on the Upper West Side and Midtown, Mayor Bill de Blasio is now reversing course in response to community uproar.

The mayor’s reversal is a stopgap measure, because the reality is that with a second wave of covid expected this fall, a similar drama will likely rear its head. So, how can we avoid repeating history?

The supportive housing model is the answer. While it currently exists in New York City, it must be greatly expanded.

First, it’s helpful for New Yorkers to understand the history of supportive housing as a model and how effective it can be in reducing homelessness and helping people—when it’s done right. The concept of supportive housing arose in the 1980s, following the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric care facilities and the turn to a more progressive policy model. After an era of warehousing homeless individuals facing mental health challenges, the supportive housing model offered an integrated mix of group transitional housing, greater independence, and access to health services. Importantly, the model linked shelter residents to dedicated community-based health facilities.

For example, one supportive housing organization, where I was general counsel, operated a community-based health clinic and a school-based health center that served our populations—including vulnerable kids and families and adults struggling with addiction and other mental health challenges. Without these dedicated providers, our residents would have fallen through the cracks of the mainstream health care system. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed by how supportive housing allows for independence and the transition out of homelessness while providing a vital safety net along the way. And during a pandemic, linking homeless residents to health services is even more valuable to New Yorkers’ collective well-being.

When this model is successfully executed, it improves residential stability, reduces burdens on the most expensive public services, and offers a more cost-effective solution for the city—providing critical relief for our strained city finances. For example, homeless people with disabilities who move into supportive housing experience marked reductions in shelter use, hospitalizations, length of stay per hospitalization, and time incarcerated, resulting in a significant reduction in the cost of public services.

Second, for supportive housing to work, the communities home to these residents must feel that the model is safe and effective. When it comes to the Upper West Side and parts of Midtown, this has all been missing because homeless individuals have not been provided supportive housing, they've been placed in shelters without robust social services.

More supportive housing units must be brought online immediately.

Also important, the city must standardize its procedures for effectively dealing with the most troublesome residents who engage in criminal behavior or detract from the needs of other, more engaged residents, whether in typical shelters or supportive housing, which is permanent housing that includes social services targeted to residents' needs.

Those who don’t follow their program guidelines or engage in illegal behavior do more than simply disrupt the neighborhood’s enjoyment and safety—their behavior can create a cascading effect on other residents. And as we’ve seen in recent news coverage, a few bad apples can deeply damage the effectiveness of creating community-based solutions all over the city. In this case, bad press could have a lasting impact on shelter residents and others, putting them at increased risk of spreading COVID-19 beyond their immediate living quarters.

I’ve seen the many benefits that supportive housing has had in local neighborhoods and in the lives of the formerly homeless residents. One of the things that makes New York such an economic and cultural center is the fact that people of all backgrounds are able to live in the same communities. And stable housing for everyone makes our communities stronger, safer and more just.

As the homelessness crisis persists and the threat of a second covid wave looms, this is an issue in which every New Yorker has a stake, even if they do not yet know it. New York City has the infrastructure and expertise to be a national leader in this area. With more supportive housing options, thoughtful changes to the city’s policies, stronger leadership, and a more dedicated focus on neighborhood partnership, we can get this right. Our neighbors—all of them—deserve that.

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Adam S. Herbst, Esq., is a health care administrator and an adjunct assistant professor at New York Law School, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, and New York Medical College.

Note: this article has been corrected and updated to reflect that residents who have been living in shelters on the Upper West Side and Midtown that have garnered recent attention were not moved from supportive housing to those shelters.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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We Must Avoid a Repeat of the Battle Between Upper West Siders and Homeless New Yorkers Thu, 20 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Lessons from How We Prevented COVID-19 from Ravaging Our Homeless Clients https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9666-lessons-prevented-covid-19-from-ravaging-homeless-new-yorkers-health-care https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9666-lessons-prevented-covid-19-from-ravaging-homeless-new-yorkers-health-care proj hos food

Food distribution during the covid crisis (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


COVID-19 has taught us painful lessons about inadequate disaster preparedness and a vulnerable health-care ecosystem. In the midst of access obstacles, insufficient resources, and a limited federal response, a virus of moderate virulence and lethality has taken an appalling toll — over 140,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 including more than 700 health-care workers. Local providers and governments have had to scramble and improvise to manage the onslaught to prevent an even worse disaster. 

At the Center for Urban Community Services, one of New York City’s largest health-care providers to people who are homeless, we have managed to scramble and improvise effectively for our clients and workforce. Our client infection rate has remained below 5 percent, well under the estimated 15-20 percent infection rate for New York City residents. We have also managed to keep our staff infection rate low, and even more importantly, we have had zero staff fatalities.

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the American South and Southwest, and in anticipation of influenza season, which we fear will exacerbate the pandemic, lessons of the spring in the Northeast can mitigate a possible second coronavirus wave. Here is some of what we learned:   

Communicate, including about your ignorance.  
Effective action always starts with accurate, relevant information people trust. A crucial ingredient of earning trust is to also be open about one’s ignorance. An early challenge of COVID-19 was that so much was unknown in the early spring about how SARS-CoV-2 transmits, causes illness, and leads to death — we didn’t really know what we were up against.

It was difficult to strategize about reducing transmission when it wasn’t clear how the virus was spreading, and it was difficult to screen people when it wasn’t clear what symptoms reliably correlated with infection. Furthermore, a lack of testing meant we didn’t even know how widespread a problem we were facing. The first thing to be up front about, then, is what you don’t know.

In March and April we communicated frequently with our clients and staff about our plans for trying to keep people safe, but also that we were committed to changing course as new information and understanding developed. An important example of this was the shifting understanding and recommendations about the value of face coverings. Early on we recommended against mask-wearing but shifted gears as evidence mounted about the effectiveness of face-covering. Because we prepared people for course changes, however, our clients and staff embraced mask-wearing easily and quickly.    

Another example of ignorance we allowed ourselves to be open about was the lack of clarity about the symptoms of COVID-19 and about the relative importance of asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread.

Realizing that confusion about these issues made it impossible to reliably identify who might be contagious at any given moment profoundly influenced our strategy in a way that we believe kept our infection rate low. Since we understood we could not completely prevent people who are contagious from being at our workplaces, we transformed our programs and operations to be safe even if people were contagious.

We eliminated as many “close contacts” between client and staff and among staff as possible. A contagious person cannot infect you if you keep your distance, avoid prolonged interactions and wear a mask. We believe our workplaces are currently safer than people’s homes.

Get ahead of the problem and on the side of caution.
By the time there was a first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York City, we had been closely monitoring developments in China and Italy and we had already started educating our staff and clients about the seriousness of the situation. Sensitizing people to the grave nature of the crisis prepared our team to rapidly develop protocols that we ended up executing well before the city and state began issuing guidance.

We had decided how we were going to respond to the closing of the New York City school system and the stay-at-home order before those measures went into effect. Given how quickly SARS-CoV-2 can spread, we believe this foresight and rapid mobilization prevented a significant outbreak at our agency.  

In mid-March we transitioned most staff to remote work, a significant challenge for a client-facing service-provider. Much of our medical team shifted to two-week, staggered rotations to limit the number of providers who would be risking exposure at any given time while also ensuring our clients access to necessary care. Acting swiftly and decisively, with healthcare workers’ well-being driving every decision, minimized the number of clinicians who became infected and allowed us to keep providing care to people. 

Although COVID-19 prevalence in New York City is currently quite low, and the city has moved on to phase 4 of reopening, we recognize this is a fragile state of affairs and that we cannot let our guard down. Our protocols continue to be informed by the assumption that everyone you might interact with might be contagious. SARS-CoV-2 can spread easily and case counts can quickly grow exponentially. We move forward assuming that might happen any time, and we believe this is the only prudent assumption until there is a widely available, effective vaccine. 

Be flexible.
A significant, unanticipated early challenge of this pandemic was the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) — just as toilet paper disappeared from the stores, so did face masks from our suppliers. To address this unprecedented challenge, Center for Urban Community Services formed an informal team to become equipment hunters and importers. For example, we deputized procurement officers who had no such previous experience.

This team collaborated with different organizations in a national, and in some cases international, effort to obtain face masks for frontline workers on our outreach teams and shelter and housing programs. People from all over the country supported this cause, mailing in hand-sewn face masks not only from New York City and State, but also from as far away as Alaska, California, and Washington State.

Through this effort, Center for Urban Community Services was able to distribute over 8,000 face masks to frontline staff and our clients who are homeless. Our investment in this effort has built new supply chains to ensure we have sufficient PPE to protect our staff and clients in future surges. 

Anticipate
Although New York City is experiencing a brief respite, it would be unwise to become complacent. COVID-19 is surging through much of the country and people travel from hot spots to New York every day. The onset of influenza season will almost certainly exacerbate whatever COVID-19 is prevalent in the city this autumn and winter. COVID-19 safety and preparedness has become embedded into all that we do — it must be inherent in our new normal — in order for us to keep people safe and to continue to provide the care and services that are so crucial to our clients.  

As scientists and physicians learn more, and COVID-19 has become less mysterious, it has become clear that good old-fashioned, basic public health measures can reverse outbreaks and control the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Social distancing; testing, tracing and isolating; hand hygiene; and mask-wearing are unfancy interventions well within the capacity of a country with the political will to resource such efforts.

By now there are dozens of examples of whole populations of people who, with clear, consistent communication and leadership, are happy to work together to protect everyone. A coordinated effort by government and citizens to employ simple, straightforward tactics could allow this country to enjoy a semblance of normalcy — being with loved ones, going to school, helping one’s neighbors — until an effective vaccine can finally put an end to this pandemic.  

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Dr. Van Yu is Chief Medical Officer at the Center for Urban Community Services. On Twitter @CUCSnyc.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Lessons from How We Prevented COVID-19 from Ravaging Our Homeless Clients Wed, 12 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Efforts to End Racism Must Include Dismantling Housing Discrimination https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9667-efforts-end-racism-dismantling-housing-discrimination https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9667-efforts-end-racism-dismantling-housing-discrimination city working dev

Housing discrimination must be addressed (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


In January 2015, I was released from a federal prison in California with the clothes I came in with, a few personal possessions I’d collected over the six years I had been incarcerated, and a bus ticket back to New York City. After a six-day journey home, I found myself subletting a room from a family friend – and as long as the rent was paid on time, they did not ask questions. Living in this apartment allowed me to find employment, cultivate relationships with my family, and continue pursuing my degree at City Tech. Unfortunately, this arrangement did not last. 

In 2017, the landlord conducted a criminal background check and proceeded to evict me. Within a few months, I was in a homeless shelter. 

Communities of color are disparately harmed by so many systems – particularly the intersection of our criminal legal system and our housing system. As a person of color in America, I am constantly straddling those two systems and the racist laws that sustain them. The incredible protests sweeping across all 50 states (and several countries) are demanding accountability to Black and brown lives — investing away from police and toward structural change. But this change can’t begin and end with police reform. It must also extend to all other systems, especially housing.  

After my eviction, I worked tirelessly to find a new home. I called real estate agents, filled out applications, paid for nonrefundable background checks (between $25 and $50 each), put down deposits, and met with landlords. When faced with the question, “Where have you lived for the past five years?” or “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” I answered honestly: “prison” and “yes.” On paper, I had not existed until my release from prison. Between this and background checks that confirmed my history, prospective landlords deemed me unworthy of safe, stable housing.   

My only options were overcrowded, vermin-riddled three-quarter houses, the city’s homeless shelter system, or living on the streets. 

For three years now, I’ve been homeless – bouncing between shelters and temporary arrangements with friends and family. Currently, I share a cramped room with my nephew. The apartment is next to a highway and my window looks out onto a cemetery. 

Unfortunately, my situation is not an anomaly. Housing options for people with conviction records are slim. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) would be a reasonable option, but NYCHA can exclude system-impacted people from applying, living, or even visiting family and friends in NYCHA housing. In short, people with records are systematically excluded from both private and public housing. 

It astounds me that these discriminatory policies persist, especially when research consistently shows that stable housing promotes successful reentry and reduces recidivism. Having a place to call home enables formerly incarcerated people to gain and retain employment, connect with family, and avoid future entanglements with the criminal legal system – all of which contribute to creating safer communities for everyone. 

Legislation can fix this problem by prohibiting housing discrimination based on conviction records. Passing such a law will prevent real estate brokers and landlords from refusing to sell, rent, or lease housing to people based on past conviction records. It would mean people like me could finally have a place to call home. 

New York has the second-highest rate of homelessness in the United States: roughly 80,000 people in the City do not have a place to call home and are in shelter; tens of thousands more are living in informal arrangements like doubling up with friends or relatives. Research shows that roughly 15% of all incarcerated people experience homelessness in the year prior to admission to prison.

Upon release, formerly-incarcerated people are seven times more likely to be homeless than someone without a history of system-involvement. In 2017, 54% of those released from prisons in the state wound up in a homeless shelter in New York City. 

But this is not just a homelessness issue – this is a racism issue. Our mass policing, arrest, and incarceration policies disproportionately target communities of color. As a result, one in three Black adult men has a felony conviction in the United States. The racial disparities in incarceration are particularly stark in New York City, where 90 percent of people in jail are Black or Hispanic.

Every one of those people faces housing discrimination and a hard road back.

When I was released from prison in 2015, I incorrectly assumed that I had paid my debt to society and that I could become a productive, contributing member of my community. Instead, I continue to suffer from the collateral consequences of both a racist criminal legal system and deeply entrenched racism in our housing laws. 

A conviction history should be a history – not a life sentence. If we truly want to create lasting changes to our racist laws and systems, we must end racist discrimination in housing once and for all. 

***
Devone Nash is a mental health advocate and member of the Fair Chance for Housing Coalition. He lives in New York City and recently graduated from Medgar Evers College with a degree in Psychology.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Efforts to End Racism Must Include Dismantling Housing Discrimination Mon, 10 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Giving New York City’s 114,000 Homeless Children a Better Shot in School https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9650-giving-new-york-city-114-000-homeless-children-shot-in-school https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9650-giving-new-york-city-114-000-homeless-children-shot-in-school jewish com council greater rosh

New York City school children (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


As thousands of demonstrators march through the streets of New York City calling for an end to police brutality and equality of opportunity for people of color, and we are on the verge of sending our children back to school of some kind, it is time that we focus on the most vulnerable people of color, and that is homeless children.

The organization Advocates For Children estimates that there are 114,000 homeless students in the New York City school system and that 85% are Black or Hispanic. This figure includes children not only living in shelters but also those that live doubled up with family or friends. These students perform significantly lower on state tests and only 57% graduate from high school, compared to 76% of all city students who are not homeless.

If we are going to make a difference in the way people of color are treated and accomplish economic security, it is essential that major efforts be put forward to lift these currently homeless children, improve their stations, and greatly increase their rate of high school graduation. 

In the homeless shelter system we have approximately 11,000 families with children. On a relatively positive note this figure is down by 1,000 from the same time last year but still very high. However, we still have 20,000 children living in the shelter system. It is time we make a critical element of the evaluation of the work of the New York City Department of Homeless Services that children in their shelters and hotels show improved performance in school. 

In order to understand the larger circumstances that these children and their parents live in, we must look at their environment. Typically a homeless family lives in a shelter unit or hotel room that is the equivalent of a small studio apartment. There are bunk beds for the kid(s) and a bed for the parent(s). Of homeless families, 80% are headed by a single adult female. There is a small kitchen area and a table and chairs to eat on and a bathroom. However, those families residing in hotels, at a cost of roughly $200 a night, often do not have a kitchen and depend on food deliveries three times a day. 

Obviously, you can see the challenges of trying to do your schoolwork in such an environment. As a former Deputy Commissioner at the Department of Homeless Services and a senior executive at nonprofits that provide shelter and supportive housing for families, I know these circumstances all too well. It’s time that every shelter and hotel that houses homeless families be required to provide space for children to do their schoolwork. This could be accomplished in some cases, perhaps, by designating one study room for every four residential rooms.

Additionally, all homeless students should receive tutoring from a new program I am calling CUNY Students Supporting Homeless Children.

As a graduate of Brooklyn College and a New Yorker, I know that CUNY students could be extremely helpful to some of our most vulnerable students, and they could also earn some extra much-needed money. Children residing in the shelters, and those living doubled up, should also be given a laptop computer and provided with access to the internet so that they can access a wealth of important resources and also receive tutoring via Zoom as needed.

The nonprofit providers who run the shelters and the hotels would be given performance standards to ensure that their students are doing better in school and more are graduating high school. Failure to meet these standards could result in a cut to their contracts.

You may be thinking that this sounds great, but with looming budget cuts how are we going to pay for this program? We should create a public-private partnership with some of the more famous billionaires and philanthropists who live and work within our midst, like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who is well known for his interest in education and supporting important philanthropic causes. The goal should be to raise $1 billion to fund this campaign, including reaching out to the general public, members of which often care about our most vulnerable children but don’t always know how to help them. New Yorkers could get involved through a Go Fund Me-type page. It must be understood and guaranteed by New York City government that the monies raised through this initiative cannot be diverted to other programs.

Over 100,000 homeless children are now drowning, with far too many destined to fail given current conditions. While we also work to get them all safely housed, this initiative could provide them with a lifeboat to allow them to overcome their severe challenges, improve at and enjoy school, graduate, and have more opportunity.

***
Robert Mascali is former Deputy Commissioner to the New York City Department of Homeless Services and Vice President for Supportive Housing for Women in Need.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Giving New York City’s 114,000 Homeless Children a Better Shot in School Thu, 06 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Removing NYPD from Homeless Outreach is a Long-Overdue Positive Step; Here’s What Must Come Next https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9640-removing-nypd-homeless-outreach-overdue-positive-what-next-housing https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9640-removing-nypd-homeless-outreach-overdue-positive-what-next-housing public outreach homes

Mayor de Blasio with homeless outreach (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


As the city gradually reopens, we’ve seen many homeless New Yorkers kicked off the subways without being offered a safe, private alternative place to sleep. In some recent cases, we have seen police officers use unacceptable violence to drag homeless New Yorkers off the train. Fortunately, after repeated calls from homeless New Yorkers and advocates, New York City finally announced homeless outreach will be shifted away from the NYPD and be done entirely by the City’s social services agency.

Though we are grateful the city made a right decision after months of failed policies, significant damage has been done since the overnight subway shutdowns began in May. Removing police from homeless outreach must be only the first step -- now, we need to gain the trust of our homeless neighbors and actually offer them the safe shelter options and permanent housing they need and deserve. 

For months, we have raised concerns about the subway shutdowns, only for Mayor de Blasio to brush off our criticism and spin his own message. After the first three weeks of the nightly subway shutdowns, the mayor boasted that 1,700 people were engaged, 506 unique individuals accepted shelter placement, and 281 of them remained in shelters. He declared success, and has continued to point to the nightly shutdowns as a welcome opportunity to engage homeless New Yorkers.

According to the Department of Homeless Services, between May 5 and July 19, 2,823 individuals accepted referrals to shelters from the subways, 955 individuals accepted placements after they were transported from the subway, and 437 of these individuals remain in shelter placements. Yet, the mayor has failed to acknowledge the reasons why people bed down in the subways in the first place, and has ignored the distrust and anxiety homeless New Yorkers experience due to being kicked off the trains every night.

For example, hours before the first nightly subway shutdown was scheduled to begin, we received a desperate email from a homeless New Yorker who had been sleeping in the subway system for two years: “Please, if you can find a way to get me into one of these hotel rooms, I’d be very grateful. Tonight, I may visit the ER, and fake some chest pains, just to have a place to relax for a bit. But, I can't do that every night. I legitimately have PTSD from the shelter system, from my last time on Wards Island. It is not an option for me. I am begging you, if you can, please help me.”

Despite the existence of tens of thousands of vacant hotel rooms, Mayor de Blasio has largely resisted calls to offer direct hotel placements for people being kicked off the subways. He has argued that they could not get services in hotels – contrary to the belief of several outreach workers – and instead offers them transportation to the same crowded, congregate shelters many of them have made a conscious decision to avoid due to the risk of exposure to COVID-19, among other reasons. In recent weeks, the city has opened some low-threshold shelter beds in hotels, but they have not been consistently offered to everyone being removed from the subways. 

Even so, Mayor de Blasio has gone on about the number of homeless New Yorkers brought to shelters or hospitals without mentioning the overcrowded chaos often found in shelters. 

When these individual human stories of the subway shutdown are reduced to numbers, the reality can be easily distorted, even portrayed as a success. Through the past few months, Coalition for the Homeless monitors have witnessed homeless New Yorkers being kicked off the subway without being given adequate alternatives. Police, rather than outreach workers, are usually the ones who wake people and tell them to leave the train. In fact, at many stations, there are only police officers present, no outreach workers.

Mayor de Blasio’s rosy proclamations ignore the fact that shuffling people between crowded congregate shelters and hospitals during a deadly pandemic is no victory. The role of police in the nightly subway shutdown has been one more example of the mayor’s reliance on the NYPD to move homeless New Yorkers along, rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness -- and his defense of aggressive police actions against homeless New Yorkers reveals his failure to grasp the negative ramifications of these misguided policies, which understandably make people more distrustful of outreach workers and others seeking to help them. 

Now, with outreach finally shifted away from the NYPD and into the hands of social services, we hope to see an end to the criminalization of homelessness. But we must go further and give outreach workers the critical tools needed to help homeless New Yorkers obtain permanent housing, a vital resource that, now more than ever, fundamentally serves as health care. New York City must provide housing assistance to help people relocate out of the transit system, off the streets, and out of crowded shelters, and into homes of their own.

For years, we have called on Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to invest in housing as a solution to homelessness. We have long argued that to reduce the tragedy of people sleeping on the streets and in the subways, they must be offered somewhere better to go. New Yorkers should not have to endure nightly removal from the subways without being provided with a safe, private place to protect themselves.

Moving away from police reliance is a massive step. We owe it to our homeless neighbors to keep fighting for something better, during and after the pandemic.

***
Jacquelyn Simone is Policy Analyst at Coalition for the Homeless. On Twitter @NYHomeless.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Removing NYPD from Homeless Outreach is a Long-Overdue Positive Step; Here’s What Must Come Next Sun, 02 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Good News and Bad News on the State of Homelessness in New York City https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9453-good-news-bad-news-on-the-state-of-homelessness-in-new-york-city https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9453-good-news-bad-news-on-the-state-of-homelessness-in-new-york-city unbrnded hra comm

Homeless outreach workers approach a person in the subway (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


As the city has been focused on the coronavirus crisis the attention concerning homeless people has been the growing number of them in the subway system, it is time we examined what is happening within the vast and very expensive shelter system that is costing $2 billion a year.

As a former Deputy Commissioner with the New York City Department of Homeless Services I can tell you that there are three types of shelters. There is the single adult system, the adult family system, comprised of two adults without children, and the families with children system.

According to the latest report from the Department there are nearly 57,000 total individuals residing in the shelter system, 37,000 are adults and 20,000 are children. 

There is some good news: the number of families with children is down 7% from the same time last year and over the past six years this number is nearly even (now: 11,250; then: 10,900). There is less good news in the adult family shelter system where we have 2,416 people residing now compared to 2,495 at the same time last year. While that number is down slightly from a year ago, the present number is 28% higher than it was six years ago.

And now for the bad news: the number of single adults presently residing in the shelters is 17,200 (12,700 men and 4,500 women). This number is up by 8% over last year at this time and up an incredible 70% in the last six years.

The city is spending an average of $125 a night to house single adults, but this number, which is already the result of a high number of clients residing in overflow hotel rooms, is growing rapidly. The expense will skyrocket after the city finishes paying for the additional 7,000 rooms it is now renting to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which might not have been necessary, to such an extent, if the shelter system was not so severely overcrowded. Individuals residing in congregate shelters are being moved to hotel rooms, often two to a room, in the effort to limit the spread.

If you are wondering why the single population is up by 70% over six years, during which time the city has had a very low unemployment rate, one of the reasons is that the state has been dumping 4,500 newly-released prisoners directly into the shelter system each year. This transfer of prisoners from the care of the state into city shelters must be curtailed immediately. The state must do a better job of discharge planning and establishing a large system of halfway houses.

The average length of stay for those in the single adult system is up significantly and so after the pandemic the city should consider going back to the Work Experience Program, where healthy clients would be required to do 20 hours a week of community service such as cleaning a public park or the grounds of a public housing development. 

Another way to reduce the number of single adults in the shelter system is to set up an eligibility review process similar to the one used in the family system. New clients should be questioned as to whether they have any other alternative living arrangements and if so be denied entry, which is reserved for those who are without any other means of shelter. The Bloomberg administration attempted to do this some 10 years ago but the City Council shot it down. However, the times have certainly changed with this terrible virus and its fallout, whereby a million New Yorkers have or are estimated to lose their jobs, and city government is expecting a drop of roughly $9 billion in tax revenue between this fiscal year and next. As a result, Mayor de Blasio has talked about laying off essential city employees and slashing billions in city spending.

Another efficient and very effective way to reduce the homeless population in unacceptable shelter circumstances is to provide supportive housing to single adults who need it. I ran two supportive housing programs where shelter residents have an apartment with social services. Unfortunately, the city and state are at a 14-year-low on making such placements. The inability of Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo to work together on a new “New York-New York agreement, like their predecessors did three times, has resulted in many units being promised but few actually funded and opened. In fact, ten years ago twice as many single adults living in shelters were placed into supportive housing as compared to now.

As COVID-19 continues to ravage our population, it is ravaging our city economy and budget, and we must not continue to conduct business as usual when it comes to spending on homeless services. We must think differently and try better ways to meet the needs of those in need.

***
Robert Mascali is a former Deputy Commissioner at the New York City Department of Homeless Services and Vice President for Supportive Housing at Women in Need.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Good News and Bad News on the State of Homelessness in New York City Wed, 03 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000