Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1082 Tue, 25 Jun 2019 18:35:47 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) As HRA Announces Closure of Another Food Stamp Center, Research Finds Excessive Wait-Times https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8580-hra-closure-food-stamp-center-excessive-wait-times https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8580-hra-closure-food-stamp-center-excessive-wait-times mayorremark supportive

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


During a recent budget hearing at the City Council, Council Member Stephen Levin asked Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks about wait-times at Human Resources Administration centers. "Have we seen an increase in wait times?” asked Levin; “How are we monitoring wait-times in light of the Jazmine Headley incident and as we're talking about staffing levels at HRA Centers?”

Confident in tone and content, Commissioner Banks answered: "[I]n SNAP and food stamp centers the wait-time is about 20 minutes because 87% of the applications are done online and 93% of the interviews are done by phone, and there's a reduction of foot traffic by more than 40% in those locations.” He continued, “and in terms of the wait-times in the Job Centers...we're about twice as long in those offices as in the food stamp centers."

Our team has conducted a significant analysis of the underlying data the city uses to calculate and report its wait times. We believe that Commissioner Banks’ response is misleading.

The use of misleading data on this matter is a risk for all poor New York City residents, and takes particular importance given the closure of two SNAP (food stamp) centers last year, and the recently-announced closure of the St. Nicholas SNAP Center in Harlem, which is planned for the end of this month.

A Background to Waiting at HRA
Council Member Levin’s May 22 questions above were referring to an incident in December 2018, captured on a cell phone video that went viral, when police assaulted Jazmine Headley and her infant son at a Brooklyn Public Assistance center. Headley had already waited in the center (otherwise known as a Job Center) for four hours before the situation unnecessarily escalated to police violence.

While the media justifiably focused on the physical violence she experienced, Headley’s story also raised another, less-publicized issue that our clients at Urban Justice Center report to us daily: excessive wait-times at HRA that cause upset children, missed days of work or school, increased tension at centers, and unnecessary interruptions in their lives.  

New York City’s welfare and food stamp (SNAP) centers are notorious for using wait-times to prevent or delay benefits access. Under Mayor Koch in the 1980s, the city’s efforts to prevent benefits access were so significant that Community Action Legal Services issued a report entitled The In-Human Resources Administration’s Churning Campaign. Under Mayor Giuliani in the 1990s, those in need of food stamps could not even obtain an application until their second center visit. Under the Bloomberg administration, public assistance recipients continued to be systematically discouraged from accessing cash aid by HRA.

Mayor de Blasio’s administration is undoubtedly more receptive of benefits applicants than those that preceded it; however, our analysis of the city’s wait-time data shows that the client experience at HRA is still unreasonable and unacceptable.

In February of this year, in the wake of the violence experienced by Headley, the City Council held a hearing about the experiences of people at HRA centers. When Council members asked HRA officials why Headley’s attempt to complete a seemingly simple task had taken four hours at one of their centers, they explained that her situation that day was an exception. However, the findings we published in our recent Bureaucracy of Benefits report, based on surveys of over 130 HRA applicants and recipients, found that wait times averaged 3.13 hours at Public Assistance (Job) Centers and 2.78 hours at SNAP centers.

Under a local law passed at the end of 2017, HRA must post the “average” wait times at centers on its website. In January 2019, the reported citywide wait time averages were 50 minutes for Job Centers and 45 minutes for SNAP centers. These are the numbers HRA administrators seemingly refer to when publicly questioned about the centers’ wait times, and presumably provided the rationale for calling Headley’s four hour-long wait an “exception.”

In an effort to determine why the city’s publicized wait times are significantly less than what our surveys reflected and what we hear so often from people who go to the centers, we issued a Freedom of Information (FOIL) request for the breakdown of the center wait-times.

What We Found
Our review found that HRA manipulates the data to make it appear as though people are waiting significantly less time in centers and then putting forward numbers publicly that do not match the reality poor New Yorkers experience each day.

The picture painted by city officials in testimony and in the online data is that visits to HRA Centers are fairly simple and quick experiences. But they are not. Furthermore, there are patterns in the data that show disproportionately heavy delays in the Bronx – the poorest borough and where the city has the highest rates of complaints at Job and SNAP Centers (see Bureaucracy of Benefits report).

The data shows that HRA, which is the nation’s largest social service agency and which claims its role is the “effective and efficient administration of more than 12 major public benefits programs, which reflects this Administration's priority of addressing poverty and income inequality,” routinely makes New Yorkers wait several hours at its offices for any and all needs. Our analysis confirms that Headley’s experience with waiting was far more common than officials admitted and resonated closely with what our clients tell us everyday.

1. Ticket-stacking: HRA’s data is compiled by tracking the amount of time that it takes for an individual to be called for a “ticket,” which individuals are given when they go into a center (for the purpose of our analysis, “ticket” refers to the tracking system HRA uses to delineate the reasons for a person’s visit to the center). However, when an individual goes to the center, they frequently need more than one ticket to accomplish a particular task. Sometimes they get multiple tickets upon entering, and sometimes they will be given additional tickets successively, either because the first person they met with was not able to help them or because there are multiple steps to a particular task.

For example, in order to apply for a new Public Assistance case, an individual must fill out a lengthy application and then also complete an application interview. These are each individual tickets. HRA is averaging the data as if each of these is a singular experience for which an individual might visit a center, when in reality, applicants are doing both in one trip. The citywide average wait time in September 2018 for an application was 17 minutes, but the average wait time for an interview was 1 hour and 34 minutes. HRA is averaging these two numbers together in calculating overall wait-time averages, when in fact they should be combined to get a complete picture of the applicant’s wait time.

2. Unweighted data: HRA’s data seemingly does not account for ticket volume by center. For instance, in September 2018, HRA calculates the citywide average wait time for those presenting to resolve a Cash Assistance (CA) missed appointment at 45 minutes. When we calculated the data weighting the amount of time against the amount of tickets for missed CA appointments, we calculated an average wait time of 1 hour and 37 minutes, more than doubling the city’s reported figure.  

3. Averaging-in zeros: According to the data, not all centers give out every ticket type in any given month. It is unclear if this is because each center employs its own practices of assigning tickets, or if some centers simply do not see certain needs in a given month. Regardless, the fact that HRA includes the tickets without any data (and therefore zero-minute wait-times) in their overall averaging provides a highly skewed presentation of what is actually happening. For instance, HRA reported (in response to our FOIL request) that the citywide average wait time to see a supervisor was 30 minutes in September. However, five centers did not report any tickets given for waiting to see a supervisor. HRA is including zero-minute waits from these five centers, which skews the citywide average.

4. Exceptional waits for Bronx residents: Repeatedly, Bronx Centers had the highest wait times reported. In September 2018, the Citywide Average Wait time for a supervisor was 30 minutes. However, at Concourse Center in the Bronx, wait-time to speak with a supervisor was 1 hour and 16 minutes. Bronx Centers had the highest (or second highest) wait times for almost every issue area we reviewed, including childcare, cash assistance application interviews, cash assistance recertifications, cash assistance reopenings, cash assistance missed appointments, and cash assistance mandatory dispute resolutions, among other appointment types.

5. Excluding service times: The publicly posted wait-time data fails to capture the additional time that individuals spend in the Center actually completing the services they came for, or the “service-time data,” which can be hours.

For the application interview, the citywide service time average in September 2018 was 47 minutes. Combined with the average service time for the application itself (5 minutes) and the wait times for both the application and application interview, an individual who needed to apply for Public Assistance in September 2018 was spending, on average, over 2.5 hours at the center. If they requested to speak to a supervisor for any reason, the overall time would go up to over 3 hours and 20 minutes. In cases where someone is waiting for multiple appointments in one visit, it is likely they will spend the majority of their day at the Center.

The extensive wait-times for benefits is yet another example of how New York City punishes people for poverty. Available data shows that people of color are disproportionately forced to rely on benefits to survive, and that women are disproportionately the “heads of household” for a family’s benefits case. To make matters worse, almost none of the mandatory services for Public Assistance applicants or recipients can be done online or over the phone. That means that in order to receive Public Assistance benefits, one must be prepared to wait – for hours and repeatedly.

While Commissioner Banks says improvements are coming through technology – and we have already seen some of the city’s technological developments unfold for SNAP-only cases – we remain very concerned that there is a significant need for increasing staff at the centers rather than simply focusing on robotic solutions.

And we are very concerned about HRA’s closure of a third SNAP Center this coming month. Of note, that closure will push SNAP recipients assigned to the St. Nicholas Center in Central Harlem to the East End Center in East Harlem, which is already known by advocates to struggle with caseload requirements that lead to long waits and often very serious case errors.

The waiting imposed on poor New Yorkers is long-standing and punitive but is it not inevitable. Increasing staff at HRA centers, increasing the number of benefits centers in each borough, and making it easier for New Yorkers to resolve problems and complete needed actions over the phone and online would all help significantly. Halting the closure of SNAP centers is another immediate step that can be taken to prevent excessive waits and pervasive errors in people’s cases.

Different decisions about allocating resources can be made that would reduce the notoriously frustrating length of time poor people spend waiting for and interacting with the city’s benefits bureaucracy. The question is whether our city is willing to do so.  

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by Kiana Davis, Isabel Hellman, Craig Hughes, Khadija Hussain & Helen Strom of the Urban Justice Center – Safety Net Project. On Twitter @SafetyNetUJC.

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As HRA Announces Closure of Another Food Stamp Center, Research Finds Excessive Wait-Times Wed, 12 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ and Access to City Benefits: What To Know https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8190-proposed-changes-to-public-charge-and-access-to-city-benefits-what-to-know https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8190-proposed-changes-to-public-charge-and-access-to-city-benefits-what-to-know 24128710992 658f50cdcf z

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


New Yorkers know that it is the city government’s job to make sure that they’re taken care of. We fill potholes, pick up the trash, clean the streets, clear the drains, prune the trees - you name it.

But that’s not all we do. And while we faced many challenges as a city and as a nation in 2018, New Yorkers continue to step up and help their neighbors in need.

Through our public health facilities, tens of thousands of dedicated professionals help their fellow New Yorkers put food on the table, help expectant mothers get access to critical health care, help seniors make ends meet, and so much more. We even helped non-English speaking eligible voters participate in our democracy, by expanding our poll-site interpretation program. We work to serve New Yorkers every day because that’s our number one job. It’s why we’re here.

Back in October, the Trump administration announced a proposal concerning “public charge,” a complex aspect of immigration law. If implemented, the proposal would make it easier for immigration officials to prevent an otherwise eligible person from getting a green card or certain kinds of visas. They could make that life-changing decision just because one day, the applicant could find herself or himself down on their luck and in need of important public resources.

Over 200,000 public comments were submitted to the federal register – a truly remarkable display of civic participation and responsiveness from residents of all walks of life. We thank you, and every single New Yorker who took the time to make their voice heard on this issue.

We can all agree that in this country – in this city – of immigrants, no one should have to choose between relying on the help for which they’re legally eligible and pursuing the American Dream.

In the past few months, we’ve heard from folks across the five boroughs, some scared or confused, and even more who want to know how to help their fellow New Yorkers.

So let’s get some facts straight.

First: the public charge proposal is not in effect, and nothing about eligibility for benefits has changed. New York City’s doors remain open to those in need. The Department of Social Services is continuing to accept applications from all New Yorkers for benefits, and is continuing to deliver benefits and services to all who are eligible. The same is true for all of the public hospitals and community clinics operated by NYC Health + Hospitals. If you’re in need of health care, you’ll be able to find it there.

Second: many immigrants would not be impacted by this proposal. If you are a naturalized citizen, a refugee, an asylee, or a green card holder thinking about renewing or becoming a U.S. citizen, this proposal would not apply to you. This is also true for many other categories of immigrants.

That leads us to the next – and very important – point.

Third: If you are concerned about this proposal’s possible impacts on you or your family, don’t make any decisions without getting safe and trusted legal advice first.

You can get help in many languages by calling the Office of New Americans hotline, operated by Catholic Charities, at 1-800-566-7636. You can also call the city’s 311 and say “ActionNYC” to schedule a free consultation with a trusted immigration legal services provider, funded by the City of New York.

If New Yorkers begin to disenroll from health care, nutrition, or housing programs for which they’re eligible, the consequences could be dire. We could face a public health crisis and lose hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity annually.

As public servants, our job is to serve you. And in the fairest big city in America, no one should struggle alone. We’ve got your back.

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Bitta Mostofi is the Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs; Steven Banks is the Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, City Council Member Carlos Menchaca is chair of the Immigration Committee, City Council Member Mark Levine is chair of the Health Committee, City Council Member Stephen Levin is chair of the General Welfare Committee.

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

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Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ and Access to City Benefits: What To Know Wed, 09 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Increasingly Paying Back Rent to Keep Tenants from Homelessness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7326-city-increasingly-paying-back-rent-to-keep-tenants-from-homelessness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7326-city-increasingly-paying-back-rent-to-keep-tenants-from-homelessness de Blasio homelessness

De Blasio discusses homelessness (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


In the effort to fight a steady, decades-long rise in homelessness, the de Blasio administration has significantly increased the city’s rental assistance programs over the past four years. A variety of programs including vouchers for those seeking to reenter stable housing from shelter, the effort also entails paying back rent for those at risk of losing their apartments.

Known as “rent arrears” payments, the de Blasio administration has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to keep New Yorkers in their homes and out of the shelter system. While this and other efforts, like significant increases in city-funded legal assistance to tenants facing eviction in housing court, have not reversed the upward trend in the shelter census, combined efforts have kept thousands of families in their homes and led to a break in the trajectory of the homelessness population -- the shelter census has hovered around 60,000 for all of 2017.

The de Blasio administration has estimated that well over 70,000 people would be homeless were it not for its efforts. At the same time, an increase in homelessness under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s watch, leading to multiple shake-ups in the administration’s approach to the issue and personnel in charge, has been one of the biggest areas of criticism for the mayor and one where he has openly admitted an insufficient response.

When de Blasio took office, there were roughly 51,500 people in city shelters, according to numbers the mayor used during a February speech outlining new plans to combat homelessness. During the 12 years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, homelessness grew to that number from about 31,000. During Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s eight years in office, the shelter census grew from 24,000 to that 31,000.

While homelessness has grown under de Blasio, this year has shown a fairly sustained pause in that growth, one the administration attributes to its suite of programs and immense resources devoted to both re-housing people experiencing homelessness and keeping at-risk people in their homes. A key piece of the puzzle has been the increase in rent arrears payments.

In 2016, the city provided 58,167 households with rent arrears payments totaling more than $214 million, with an average of $3,688 per case. This was an increase from 54,737 households and $188 million in 2015; up from 48,654 cases and $149 million in 2014, the first year of de Blasio’s time as mayor, according to data provided by the administration’s Human Resources Administration (HRA).

Before de Blasio took office, the city was also using rent arrears payments through HRA. In 2013 about 47,000 households were helped with $127 million in rent arrears; in 2012, 44,500 were helped with $121 million; and in 2011, 40,300 households with $107 million, according to HRA.

The final year of the Bloomberg administration, 2013, compared to 2016 under de Blasio, shows rent arrears payments provided to about 25% more households. The average disbursement has gone from $2,695 to $3,668, indicative of the increased cost of housing in the city and the widening gaps between incomes and rents, according to the city. HRA indicated that rent arrears efforts have continued to grow in 2017.

“As part of this Administration’s overall effort to prevent evictions and alleviate homelessness, over the past three years we have rebuilt rental assistance and rehousing programs that had been eliminated in 2011, expanded legal services for tenants and enhanced emergency rent assistance,” said HRA spokesperson Lourdes Centeno, in a statement. “By providing emergency rent assistance, we have helped more than 300,000 New Yorkers remain in their homes while saving taxpayers’ money because rental assistance is much less expensive than the cost of a homeless shelter. Helping New Yorkers at risk of eviction remains a crucial priority for this Administration.”

The mayor has not only increased resources going toward homelessness prevention and reduction, as well as toward simply sheltering those experiencing homelessness (some at pricey hotels and at decrepit shelters), he also signed into law a “right to counsel” bill that will cover the vast majority of low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court, where they often do not have legal representation without the city’s help. While he had been increasing funding toward such legal services, de Blasio only agreed to such a law after intensive lobbying from City Council Members Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, the co-sponsors of the bill, and advocates.

Before that, though, de Blasio in February announced his second reboot of the administration’s approach to homelessness, with a focus on opening new shelters to keep people close to their communities, jobs, and support networks, while eliminating the use of costly hotels and substandard “cluster site” shelters.

“I said honestly, since we’ve come in, we’ve had to struggle to deal with a constant flow of people coming in, and that got to our worst point just about the time of Thanksgiving last year,” de Blasio said in February when releasing his new plan, Turning the Tide on Homelessness in New York City. “We reached the peak population that’s ever been in shelter, 60,709. Today, we have just over 60,000 people in shelter. By the end 2021, we will get down 57,500.”

De Blasio has been criticized for proposing to open 90 new shelters and for setting such a modest goal in homelessness reduction, which he admitted was such when he announced it.

According to the latest numbers available from the Department of Homeless Services, there were 60,325 people in homeless shelters on Tuesday of this week. (There are somewhere around another 2,000-4,000 people living on the streets, a population that is challenging to accurately quantify, members of which the de Blasio administration has launched new efforts to bring into shelter.)

In an interview earlier this year, de Blasio’s homelessness czar, Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks, said that while he was impatient to make more progress, “breaking the trajectory itself was a significant achievement. Three-and-a-half years in, there are signs of progress and signs of much more we need to do.”

Banks said that other than more federal and state help, the pieces were all in place to not just break the upward trendline, but put it in reverse. He often cites a “prevention-first strategy,” and listed “more supportive housing, more rental assistance, more outreach on the streets, more help to prevent evictions, more money for rent arrears, a shelter system to keep people close to their networks.” He added, “Reforms that we have wanted for years, now we’re putting them in place.”

Discussing the increase in rent arrears payments on Wednesday, Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, said that “the scale of the numbers highlights the scale of the need that’s out there. The number of cases and the investment indicate the widespread need across the city, something we should all be concerned about. But it’s good that the city is making these efforts to keep people housed.”

“This highlights one aspect of what the de Blasio administration is doing right -- prevention efforts,” Routhier said. “But when we’re talking about reducing record homelessness in New York City, we have to look at how they are helping people in shelter move into housing.”

Routhier added a word of criticism and previewed a City Council hearing schedule for this coming Monday. “Today he released Housing New York 2.0, in which he’s increasing the target number of units,” she said, “a vast increase in the total housing plan, but there’s no mention of an increase in the number of units for homeless households. For us, that’s a concern given the number of people in homeless shelters.”

Of de Blasio’s original 200,000-unit, ten-year affordable housing plan (now upped to 300,000 units over 12 years) there were 10,000 units dedicated to homeless households.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Increasingly Paying Back Rent to Keep Tenants from Homelessness Wed, 15 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Budget Response Seeks New Spending, More Savings https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6263-city-council-budget-response-seeks-new-spending-more-savings https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6263-city-council-budget-response-seeks-new-spending-more-savings bdb budget briefing w CMs

Mayor de Blasio briefs Council members on his budget (photo: William Alatriste) 


The City Council on Monday issued its formal response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017, capping a month of budget hearings that were fraught with concerns over how Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget would affect the city and how prepared the city’s coffers are for a rainy day.

Until last week, uncertainty over significant cuts in funding to New York City outlined by Cuomo had the City Council on its toes, with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito traveling to Albany to participate in efforts to eliminate them. The de Blasio administration said at the first Council budget hearing that it did not have a contingency plan if the state were to shift nearly $700 million in costs for Medicaid and CUNY in fiscal 2017 to the city. Instead, officials said, they would be making every effort to ensure that the cuts did not stay when the state budget was passed.

In a letter to the mayor on Wednesday, the Council identified its budget priorities but stopped short of issuing its full response given that the state budget had yet been finalized.

At the end of last week, a new $147 billion state budget was passed without the most significant cuts to city funding, and the Council had the all clear to move forward with its priorities unchanged. Out of a budget process so far largely focused on identifying savings across city government, the Council outlined specifics for a city budget that serves immigrants and youth, sets aside more in reserves, and invests in expanded services that it can track.

“The Council’s budget recommendations are the culmination of dozens of comprehensive budget hearings and reflect the needs of all New Yorkers while also planning for our City’s future,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, in a Monday statement accompanying the Council’s budget response, which will form the agenda over the next three months as it negotiates a final budget with the mayor’s office by the June 30 deadline. “This is a budget that is smart, fair and fiscally responsible, all while greatly expanding opportunities to New Yorkers across the City,” Mark-Viverito wrote.

The Council identified eight major priorities in its response: increased investment in city youth; investment in healthcare, education, jobs and legal services for immigrants; specific funding for the diverse communities; capital investment in infrastructure; creating a Rainy Day Fund and adding to existing reserves; baselining essential city services; expanding criminal justice, community support, and human services; and more accurately tracking city agency performance.

The Council is proposing $790 million in new spending and tax reductions but estimates that the increase to the budget would ultimately be only about $127 million once larger agency savings and changes to debt service payments are included. Even with additional spending, the Council estimates a budget surplus of $258 million in fiscal 2017.

The Council identifies $91.2 million in agency savings that the preliminary budget did not account for. A majority of this amount, $80 million, would come from reducing the city’s contribution to fringe benefits for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) and the Human Resources Administration (HRA), which have received increased state and federal funding for these costs, the Council says.

The response also calls for reduction in the city’s data processing equipment budget by $14 million and a $6 million reduction in Other Than Personal Services costs at the Department of Transportation. All of these savings figures were arrived at through analysis by the Council’s budget office, which is under the supervision of Mark-Viverito, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who chairs the finance committee, and Finance Director Latonia McKinney.

Although the state budget no longer haunts the city’s fiscal future, the Council recognizes risks remain. An economic slowdown is widely expected by city officials, economists, and budget watchdogs, and the Council’s budget response notes the consequences it could have on consumer spending, tax revenue, real estate prices, and cost of living.

“These preliminary budget recommendations reflect a central challenge in government: making our city more equitable while also planning prudently for the future,” said Ferreras-Copeland, in a statement. “The proposals included address inequality in New York City while remaining fiscally responsible, and I believe they represent the diversity of needs across our city. As the budget process advances, I will continue to ensure that the Council is an equal partner and that the Administration’s investments are transparent.”

The budget is due before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1. Along with the state budget, Mayor de Blasio will take the Council’s feedback into consideration as he crafts his executive budget, due out later this month. The release of that updated spending plan, which the mayor has indicated will likely include a more robust agency savings plan, will trigger another round of hearings at the City Council. Then, the two sides will negotiate out of public view until a deal is struck.

Asked to respond to the Council’s preliminary budget response, Office of Management and Budget spokesperson Amy Spitalnick, recounted by email that “Budget monitors and rating agencies have all applauded this administration's fiscal prudence and focus on targeting investments and protecting against economic uncertainty – and investors agree,” while providing a link to a Bloomberg news article on the subject.

Spitalnick outlined that the administration has “unprecedented” reserves while restoring “funds cut under the prior administration.” Even with billions already in savings, she wrote, “the Mayor has made clear, we’ll continue to build on those savings in the Executive Budget.”

“We look forward to continuing to work with the Council throughout the budget process,” she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Budget Response Seeks New Spending, More Savings Mon, 04 Apr 2016 21:06:46 +0000
Report Propels Debate Over City's Welfare Reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6227-report-propels-debate-over-citys-welfare-reforms https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6227-report-propels-debate-over-citys-welfare-reforms banks levin

CM Levin, left, & HRA Commissioner Banks (photo: William Alatriste)


A new report on the city's reengineered public assistance system concluded, among other findings, that it's too soon to tell whether the wide-ranging reforms put in place by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks are working. The updated analysis from the city's Independent Budget Office (IBO) not only leaves unanswered whether the Banks/de Blasio reforms are working, but how exactly to judge a system now geared towards long-term change rather than short-term reward.

Earlier this month, IBO, a nonpartisan city-funded agency, released a report on how the de Blasio administration changes to the welfare system, making it less punitive and refocused on education and employment for welfare recipients, rather than stressing work experience programs. Conservative critics of the changes, including Banks' predecessors from previous administrations, say that the city is becoming too lax and encouraging people to rely on government assistance. The administration says it is both taking a more humane approach and playing the long game, with greater payoffs down the road when people move off of assistance and don't need to return to it.

The IBO looked at the effects these reforms have had on welfare caseloads and the city budget. Caseloads have increased, in particular one-time grants, which also mean increased budget outlays projected for the coming year. One-time grants are cash assistance benefits to those who apply due to the most temporary hardship.

The report notes that over the course of December 2015, there were a total of 597,347 unduplicated welfare recipients, a slight increase from 591,544 in May 2014. It attributed this increase to one-time grant recipients, one group among welfare classes, which went up by 34,339, translating into $133 million over the course of a year ($60 million of which is city funds).

"The idea was that people would get better jobs and stay out there," said Paul Lopatto, the IBO analyst who authored the report, on the reforms. "The prediction that HRA is making now is that after a while, the caseload will decline, and that the increase is only temporary," Lopatto said. "It's not a surprise," he added. "It's a question of how long and how high it gets."

Alex Armlovich, a policy analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the IBO report echoes what he has already said about the new welfare system, that the increase in the cash assistance caseload is "policy driven, not driven by weakness in the local economy or by disenfranchisement of low-skilled workers. It does not look promising on its face but we still have to see how it plays out," he said.

Armlovich emphasized that one of the potential concerns about the system's new direction was "rubber stamping" in the education and training programs and that there was no way to tell if there was substantive improvement. "That's the fear," he said, insisting that HRA should put out tracking metrics for particular outcomes. He cited GED enrollment and completion as an easy figure to track and analyze.

"If you're directly and quantitatively accountable, that assuages any fear about the nature of the program," he said. "I don't think it's time to panic. It's just something we need to keep an eye on."

The need for metrics is one that City Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the general welfare committee, which has oversight of HRA, agrees with. "We need strong metrics, strong data and strong measures in place to ensure that policy in New York City is working," he said of the welfare system reforms.

Levin was less concerned about the increase in caseloads or the resulting budget burden, although he said it was especially necessary to keep an eye on the latter. The increase in welfare recipients, he said, was to be expected after years of previous administrations artificially suppressing the rolls.

"The previous administrations spent a lot of money trying to knock people off the rolls," he said of the Bloomberg and Giuliani years, noting that HRA's new, more conciliatory approach is correcting these past policies. "If the numbers have gone up, we would expect that."

At a preliminary budget hearing on Tuesday, the general welfare committee heard testimony from Commissioner Banks on HRA's progress on these reforms. Council members asked few critical questions, if any, on the specifics. Levin chalked this up to the fact that HRA's plan was still being implemented and that the committee had little time as they were focused on a litany of other pressing issues. General welfare also has oversight of HRA's other programs, the Department of Homeless Services, and the Administration for Children's Services.

When asked about the IBO report, an HRA official cited similar reasoning. In a statement emailed to Gotham Gazette, HRA press secretary Lourdes Centeno said, "As part of our employment plan that is being phased in over two years, HRA is in the process of reforming its employment services through new RFPs and other program enhancements and continues to expand services that put recipients on a career pathway to long-term employment and self-sufficiency, which will replace the past policies that often resulted in only short-term employment and return to the caseload."

Centeno added that the fluctuation in caseloads was in part because of increasing one-time assistance to prevent evictions and utility shutoffs, and noted that the unduplicated recurring caseload was largely flat for eight years. "We are monitoring our budget to ensure that we are using our resources effectively to help as many New Yorkers in need as we can," she added.

[Related: In Departure From Predecessors, De Blasio Administration Overhauls Welfare System]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Report Propels Debate Over City's Welfare Reforms Thu, 17 Mar 2016 02:39:26 +0000
Through Committee, Bill to Create Office of Civil Justice Heads Toward Law https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5740-through-committee-bill-to-create-office-of-civil-justice-heads-toward-law https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5740-through-committee-bill-to-create-office-of-civil-justice-heads-toward-law MMV Levine and co

Mark-Viverito, front, & Levine, behind her, are the lead sponsors (photo: William Alatriste)


New York City is one step closer to having a new Office of Civil Justice. On Tuesday, the City Council's Committee on Courts and Legal Services unanimously passed a bill that would create the office, to be tasked with assessing, coordinating, and helping reform the civil legal services available to low-income New Yorkers. Among the most pressing concerns are ensuring legal representation for immigrants facing deportation and tenants facing eviction.

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Through Committee, Bill to Create Office of Civil Justice Heads Toward Law Tue, 26 May 2015 18:42:12 +0000
New Guide to Public Assistance Aims to Help Neediest Navigate System https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5705-new-guide-to-public-assistance-aims-to-help-neediest-navigate-system https://www.gothamgazette.com/government/5705-new-guide-to-public-assistance-aims-to-help-neediest-navigate-system snp cup hra

At Thursday's guide release (photo: @DMirandaSNP)


New Yorkers in need of public assistance provided by the city must navigate a maze of bureaucracy and paperwork. In an attempt to provide clarity and ensure that the neediest access available benefits, the Safety Net Project at the Urban Justice Center in collaboration with the Center for Urban Pedagogy today released a visual guide to the city’s welfare system.

Titled “Your Guide to Welfare NYC,” the poster is designed to help the 350,000 city residents who rely on public cash assistance to access benefits and protect themselves when those benefits are in danger of being revoked.

The guide was created over the last year through feedback from recipients of public benefits and advocacy groups. The city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) also helped review the poster drafts and its commissioner, Steve Banks, was at Thursday’s launch event.

The Safety Net Project has printed 2,000 copies, a portion of which will be distributed today throughout the five boroughs while the online version of the guide is disseminated through social media and other channels.

“With over 350,000 people relying on public assistance, there aren’t enough resources to ensure everyone has access,” said Denise Miranda, managing director of the Safety Net Project. “There’s an urgent need to help those people who rely on benefits for their survival.”

Going forward, Miranda hopes that they can translate the multi-page poster into different languages and print and distribute on a larger scale. “We’re hopeful that the city might participate in raising funds for distribution,” she said. “It’s a resource tool that will be invaluable to New Yorkers.”

The poster - in red, white and blue - has a step-by-step visual guide divided into three easily readable sections with graphics. The first section lays down the basics of eligibility for benefits, how they are disseminated, and where to apply. The second section gives simple instructions for how to apply, including the documents needed and tips for visiting HRA centers. The final section shows people how to retain benefits, avoid sanctions, and settle disputes with HRA.

nyc welfare guide via safey net

Showing renewed cooperation between HRA and advocacy groups, the release was held at HRA’s Waverly Job Center in midtown. “We have been partnering with community groups all over the city,” Commissioner Banks told reporters. “Over the past year we’ve been making dramatic reforms in the agency and we think efforts like this are helpful to get information out to our clients. We look forward to continue to partner with the Urban Justice Center and other efforts to make sure our clients are aware of the services that we have and help them navigate that process.”

Under Banks, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, HRA has seen significant changes from past administrations. “After 20 years of administrations that showed disregard, some might say disdain, for people in need of assistance, there’s been a shift in outreach, policy and culture in the new administration,” said Safety Net Project’s Miranda.

HRA has also been making efforts in easing the process of accessing benefits. Just last week, the city announced a new website, foodhelp.nyc, to help people apply for  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps. The city estimates that more than half a million New Yorkers qualify for SNAP but have not availed of them.

“Anything that helps people know about and navigate the complicated process [of public assistance] is important,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates. “The administration has taken big steps forward. But there have been 20 years of policy and public practice in place that make it nearly impossible to access public assistance. It takes the full effect of both the city administration and advocacy organizations to see that people are able to get assistance and navigate the process.”

Wendy O’Shields has volunteered at Safety Net Project for the last year and worked on the new guide. Her perspective is doubly relevant considering that during the Great Recession, she had to reluctantly apply for public assistance. “There was nothing I could reference to learn the rules that HRA goes by,” she told Gotham Gazette after today’s press conference. “I had to learn by the experience, the school of hard knocks. It would have been very helpful going through crises if there was something I could have referenced so I could have not made the learning curve beginner mistakes.”

The new poster does just that. Perhaps more aptly called a pamphlet, it translates legal technical information into conversational language and has a flow-chart-like design. “We often think of it as building a narrative that helps people move through the information in a way that’s accessible,” said Christine Gaspar, executive director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. “The process is about bringing those pieces together.”

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by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@samarkhurshid

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New Guide to Public Assistance Aims to Help Neediest Navigate System Thu, 30 Apr 2015 19:10:45 +0000