Gotham Gazette Tue, 28 Jan 2020 07:03:12 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Council Examines Gaps in City Shelter Services for Domestic Violence Survivors mmv attends brides

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Domestic violence continues to be a leading cause of homelessness in New York City and ahead of Domestic Violence Awareness month, the New York City Council sought to examine how Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has provided services to survivors of domestic violence who rely on the city’s shelter system. 

Under state law, counties are required to provide shelter and services to domestic violence survivors. In New York City, that responsibility falls to the Human Resources Administration (HRA), which administers the largest domestic violence shelter system in the United States, comprised of 55 confidential facilities across the city that house 2,514 emergency beds. Those 55 sites include nine “Domestic Violence Tier II transitional shelter facilities,” with a total of 362 units where survivors are placed once they are stabilized in the emergency system.

According to HRA data, in fiscal year 2019, ending June 30, the city’s domestic violence shelter system served 10,983 individuals, including 355 single adults and 3,877 families.

But there remain several challenges for survivors and Council members attempted to address them at a joint hearing on Tuesday of the Committee on General Welfare and the Committee on Women and Gender Equity. The hearing was largely dedicated to oversight of the system, but also focused on two bills and a resolution under consideration by the committees.

In 2018, the NYPD responded to 250,447 domestic incident reports, about 8% more than the national average, according to the committee’s report from Tuesday’s hearing. According to NYPD data, felony assault complaints related to domestic violence increased from 7,800 in 2017 to 8,200 in 2018.

One bill on the docket at Tuesday’s hearing, sponsored by Council Member Stephen Levin (chair of the general welfare committee), would require HRA to report monthly disaggregated statistics on families with children living in shelter, while the second bill, sponsored by Council Member Helen Rosenthal (chair of the women and gender equity committee), calls for reports on services provided to transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) individuals in domestic violence shelters. The resolution, put forward by Council Member Farah Louis, calls on the state Legislature to authorize domestic violence shelters to be reimbursed for the payment differential for housing a single individual in a room intended for double occupancy.

Council Member Levin noted in his opening remarks that state law only allows survivors to remain in shelter for 180 consecutive days, after which they have few options at hand if they have failed to find permanent housing. Many end up trying to find shelter in the larger Department of Homeless Services (DHS) system, which doesn’t provide the same services that would be available to them in the domestic violence shelter system. Another choice they often face after the 180-day period is to return to their abusers.

Levin noted that in 2016, among families with children entering the DHS system every month, an average of 31% had a history of domestic violence. “This is a reality that we must change and that we have an obligation to as the city address with every resource that we have,” he said.

Rosenthal pointed out a dire problem. Citing a 2017 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, she noted that just 13% of intimate partner violence survivors attempted to access shelter; and about 43% of those who did seek shelter were denied and one-third of those were rejected based on gender identity.

She estimated that between 40 and 50 survivors were likely being turned away from domestic violence shelters in New York City each year because of their gender identity. “These numbers are clear. The TGNC community in New York is underserved,” she said, pointing out that the domestic violence shelter system favors cisgender individuals and that no beds are specifically available for TGNC survivors.

Rosenthal said the city should not only be providing more training to ensure TNGC individuals do not face discrimination but called on the Mayor's Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence (ENDGBV) to audit the work of domestic violence shelters to ensure equal compliance.

Testifying before the committees, officials from the de Blasio administration laid out a long string of efforts taken in the last few years to improve the city’s domestic violence shelters.

Annette Holm, HRA’s Chief Special Services Officer, said contracts for 300 additional emergency beds, announced by the mayor in 2015, had been awarded; a new shelter for families with pets opened last week; and 295 of 400 Tier II transitional units also announced in 2015 had been awarded. Three more Tier II shelters will open in 2020, she said.

“HRA addresses the scourge of domestic violence, a major driver of poverty and homelessness, by ensuring survivors and their families have access to a safe living environment and trauma-informed services, both within the shelter systems and as they transition back into communities,” Holm said. The agency also collaborates with several other mayoral offices and agencies to provide mental health, economic empowerment, legal and social services to domestic violence survivors, she noted, and has conducted trainings to ensure shelters are more inclusive to LGBTQI and TNGC populations.

Holm said the administration would work with the Council to achieve the goals of the bills at hand but raised some concerns, “namely about ensuring that collection of such information about transgender and non-binary people does not create barriers to access, raise privacy concerns, and/or further traumatize a client in an already vulnerable situation.”

She also noted that Levin’s bill could run up against the strict confidentiality requirements under the law and that the city would require consent from sheltered individuals before collecting their information.

Some of the issues raised by the Council members were echoed by survivors who testified as well. Alida Tchicamboud, a survivor leader at Sanctuary for Families, a domestic violence survivor service provider, emphasized how the city’s shelter system saved her life. But there were hurdles along the way, she explained. “It seems like the system works against survivors, especially for single women with dependent minor children, by forcing them to go back into the cycle of lifetime public assistance,” she said.

She said the limit on stays should be extended to a year, and that the rental assistance vouchers provided to survivors to find permanent housing were insufficient. She urged the city to provide more trauma-informed services, to enhance prosecutions of landlords who often illegally refuse to accept rental assistance vouchers, and to build permanent housing that prioritizes domestic violence survivors.

Rosenthal raised several complaints brought by service providers and advocates about both HRA’s processes and services. She urged HRA to ease the process of documenting attendance of survivors in shelter. Holm said that was already underway, with a new electronic attendance system that has been piloted in seven shelters and will be rolled out across the entire system in six months.

Rosenthal also called on HRA to share its annual reviews of shelter operational plans with ENDGBV, to ensure that shelters are providing adequate services for TGNC individuals. She also pushed HRA to be more flexible with paying service providers, and called on the administration to conduct greater outreach to domestic violence shelter and service providers who currently do not receive any government funding.

Levin encouraged HRA to increase access to mental health and financial literacy services, insisting that he wants to see some strides on those fronts before his City Council term expires in two years. 

On one area, there seemed to be some disagreement. Holm insisted she had never heard of the shelter system turning away any individuals based on their gender identity. “We don’t make a distinction. We treat them all the same. If they come in and we have an available bed and they meet the criteria, they will be housed,” she said.

Elizabeth Dank, ENDGBV’s deputy commissioner and general counsel, said her office conducts regular trainings for other agencies and service providers, particularly for screening and reception staff, to ensure they are sensitive to all domestic violence survivors, regardless of identity. 

But Rosenthal echoed advocates who said it is a real problem.

Catherine Shugrue dos Santos, deputy executive director for programs at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, which contracts with the city, said that “there are precious few, if any, beds in New York City available at any time for survivors who do not identify as straight cisgender women with dependent children...Our clients regularly report being turned away from shelters and having nowhere to stay, thereby putting them at risk of further, potentially deadly violence.” She supported Rosenthal’s reporting bill and additionally called on the city to provide more funding for space to accommodate individuals across the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrum and more training for shelter providers.  

Jimmy Meagher, policy director of Safe Horizon, reiterated the point: “TGNCB survivors face all of the same obstacles and challenges that many cisgender survivors do – trauma, confusing and controlling systems, economic insecurity, the herculean task of finding affordable permanent housing, etc. But they also face discrimination, hate, and additional forms of violence.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Council Examines Gaps in City Shelter Services for Domestic Violence Survivors Tue, 24 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
What New York City Must Do to Halt Fear and Misinformation Around ‘Public Charge’ 15847120715 332a005108 z

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The Trump administration’s changes to the “public charge” policy are so ambiguous and poorly communicated as to leave little doubt about whether the resulting fear rippling through immigrant communities nationwide was baked into this bigoted scheme.

Here in New York City, we refuse to follow the White House down this dark path. We are the home of Ellis Island, a town built with immigrant hands and made great by the diversity we celebrate. We will fight the imminent public charge policy changes with every tool available and combat the Trump administration’s campaign of fear and misinformation.

This effort must start with our city agencies, which currently do not provide clarity for those new Americans looking for real answers. 

New York City’s Department of Education and Human Resources Administration websites detail a multitude of programs and services available for millions of New Yorkers. Ranging from legal aid to emergency food sites, these benefits are lifelines for families in need with nowhere else to turn.

None of these resources, however, inform immigrant families of the federal government’s changes to public charge policy slated to take effect October 15. The policy change will expand the definition of a “public charge” to include immigrants who receive public benefits such as cash assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, and Section 8 vouchers. Those deemed a public charge will be barred from obtaining a Green Card or permanent residence in the United States. 

This has grave consequences for hundreds of thousands of immigrant New Yorkers. For some immigrant parents who use public benefits to provide for their U.S.-born children, they may risk losing any chance at citizenship in the future.

The weaponization of our public benefits programs will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the number of New Yorkers seeking basic necessities such as access to housing, general nutrition and financial security. It will force some to make the unfathomable choice between feeding their children and the dream of becoming an American citizen. 

Leaders like New York State Attorney General Tish James and several immigrant-focused social service organizations are already leading the legal fight to block this policy. But more must be done.

It is important to remember this rule change only applies to individuals seeking admission into the United States or applying for adjustment of status. However, the policy’s intentionally misleading language has stoked fear and confusion among a much larger swath of our immigrant population. Some immigrants who may not be affected by the policy change are nevertheless considering disenrolling from these life-sustaining programs out of confusion, fear, or both.

This is where city officials must rise to the occasion, and it is precisely why we have introduced a package of bills in the City Council requiring agencies to create and distribute comprehensive fact sheets and resource materials.

By disseminating information in multiple languages in schools, trusted spaces, and high-traffic government buildings, we can counteract the panic sweeping our city. Our legislation would ensure detailed fact sheets and information on emergency feeding programs are delivered directly to parents, students, and all those who disenroll from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or whose SNAP benefits are set to lapse.

This full-court press will guarantee that nearly every family in New York City would receive this crucial information. These materials will both reassure individuals of their lawful right to public benefits and include information on how to navigate serious issues including how to obtain an attorney and access emergency food. 

The danger of this rule change lies not only in its xenophobia, which asserts that America is open only to the wealthy, but also in the uncertainty and fear it strikes in so many of us. It is easy to be scared by the hateful rhetoric that we hear from the president and his acolytes. But if we educate ourselves and each other, we can protect our communities and fight back to ensure our most hardworking, resilient and vibrant communities receive equal treatment.

The blatant attack by the Trump administration on new Americans is in full display across the country as families are separated, detained in horrific conditions, and returned to the perils they fled to seek refuge in the United States. It is up to our local government to provide the necessary resources to all our constituents, regardless of their national origin or economic status. Though the White House may continuously shout at you to go away, this city will honor the lamp that lights the New York Harbor and say to you, welcome home.

Carlina Rivera and Francisco Moya respectively represent Manhattan’s District 2 and Queens’ District 21 in the New York City Council. On Twitter @CarlinaRivera & @FranciscoMoyaNY.

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What New York City Must Do to Halt Fear and Misinformation Around ‘Public Charge’ Sun, 08 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
10 Key Data Points from Social Services Budget Hearing Corey Johnson hearing

City Council Member Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council General Welfare Committee conducted a budget hearing Monday to evaluate the programs, expenditures, and needs of the Human Resource Administration (HRA) and Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Steven Banks, Commissioner of the Department of Social Services (DSS), which oversees both HRA and DHS, provided testimony for the two agencies before taking questions from concerned Council members.

Though HRA provides a wide variety of services -- including job training and emergency food assistance -- the committee’s questioning focused almost exclusively on the city’s homelessness crisis and the lack of progress that has been made by the de Blasio administration.

“Is this something that New Yorkers are going to have to accept as a new norm?” asked Council Member Stephen Levin, chair of the committee. “Are we to look ahead to future years and future generations and accept that the reality is that there are going to be 50,000 individuals and families living in our shelter system?”

There are currently about 60,000 New Yorkers living in homeless shelters, and Mayor Bill de Blasio recently outlined the goal of reducing the population to about 57,500 over five years. While the mayor has admitted that his administration has not made enough progress reducing homelessness, he argues that the population would be around 70,000 if not for the rent subsidy and anti-eviction measures his team, led by Banks, has implemented.

Responding to Levin and committee members, most of whom were late to the hearing, Banks provided a comprehensive rundown of the investments DSS and the de Blasio administration have instituted, such as voucher programs and legal assistance to tenants facing unwarranted eviction.

He also discussed the HOME-STAT initiative, which has doubled the number of outreach workers on city streets in order to bring people into shelter. Though the committee acknowledged its support for these measures and conceded that significant investment has been made, they nevertheless stressed their dissatisfaction -- often bordering on outrage -- with the lack of progress, especially considering the concentration of resources targeted at homelessness. Expenditures for HRA and DHS have ballooned under de Blasio, and the mayor is proposing more money for the fiscal year 2018 budget, which is due by July 1.

In his $84.67 billion preliminary budget proposal, 18 cents of every dollar goes to social services, the second largest portion behind education. The mayor has allocated $7.5 billion for the Department of Social Services and $772 million for the Department of Homeless Services, though both numbers are likely lower than the adopted budget will show at the end of June. 

At Monday's hearing, Council Members Barry Grodenchik, Corey Johnson, and Brad Lander were particularly critical of the administration’s efforts.

“It seems to me that this city has committed an immense amount of resources doesn’t seem like we’re getting value for our dollars,” Grodenchik told Banks, questioning both the effectiveness and scope of the administration’s plan to stop using 360 cluster apartment and commercial hotel locations and open 90 new homeless shelters throughout the city. “It seems to me that the goal is not as ambitious as it needs to be.”

Banks defended “a concrete and realistic goal.”

Lander expressed frustration that is shared by de Blasio, his predecessor on the Council, and other stakeholders. “On the one hand I appreciate being realistic, on the other I appreciate that this is an absolute crisis and we need to do more,” Lander said, before proceeding to recommend that Banks and his team focus on “getting families into affordable, permanent public housing.”

The notion of placing more homeless families into public housing, through NYCHA, is something that some elected officials and advocates have long-called for, but that Banks and de Blasio have said is not the right approach. The mayor has cited the already-long NYCHA wait-lists.

“It’s disturbing to walk down the streets everyday and to see homeless people on nearly every block...even after all these efforts at homelessness prevention, it still feels like we are not being successful,” added Council Member Johnson, who represents Chelsea and Greenwich Village.

Banks’ testimony touched on other important DSS initiatives, in addition to homelessness, and provided updated data points on a variety of key topics:

--The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps feed 1.7 million New Yorkers, including more than 650,000 children, added 8,371 participants in the last year. Asked about the future of SNAP in New York City, given the uncertain prospects for federal funding under the Trump administration, Banks said that he and the mayor would be working with Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to retain SNAP funding for New York City recipients.

--According to Banks’ testimony, HRA provided rental assistance to 58,100 households in 2016 at a cost of $214 million. Asked about the widespread problem of landlords refusing to honor rental assistance programs and vouchers, Banks provided a phone number that residents can now call if they experience such refusal. Banks said HRA is determined to identify non-compliant landlords and compile a database of these individuals.

--Banks’ testimony also explained that HRA has eliminated the Work Experience Programs (WEP) in favor of Job Training Program slots at NYPD, Parks Department, Department of Sanitation, and Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). The programs will serve up to 210 cash assistance participants annually.

--The HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) accepted 3,444 new clients from August 2016 through January 2017, which is 1,410 more than the same period from the previous year. This was result of an HIV expansion program that allowed “all financially-eligible New York City residents with HIV to seek and obtain HASA services.” Applicants previously had to have developed AIDS or be “symptomatic” to be eligible. Council Member Johnson, who chairs the health committee, spoke about the success of HASA as a key achievement.

--Banks’ testimony also announced a DHS plan to add 10,000 affordable apartments specifically for seniors, veterans, and New Yorkers earning less than $40,000 per household. DHS also has plans to institute an Elder Rental Assistance program, to be funded through the mayor’s “mansion tax,” to help more than 25,000 seniors with monthly rental assistance of up to $1,300. The mansion tax is unlikely to be approved in Albany, though.

--In 2016, DHS placed 3,153 homeless veterans in permanent housing.

--30% of families with children in a DHS shelter have a history of domestic violence. The Fiscal Year 2017 budget included $217 million for DHS security purposes.

--Banks also referenced the 24% drop in evictions citywide since the institution of free legal assistance programs for many New Yorkers facing eviction. More than 40,000 residents avoided eviction in 2015 and 2016. The mayor and the City Council recently agreed to expand such assistance further.

--Banks provided figures to demonstrate why the city has struggled to contain its homelessness problem. Between 2000 and 2014, Banks testified, median rent has increased 19%, while household income decreased by 6.3% over the same period.

--360,000 New Yorkers now spend more than 50% of their income on rent and utilities. Another 140,000 spend more than 30%.

--All in all, homelessness has increased by 115% over the past two decades. In 1994, 23,868 New Yorkers were homeless, by 2014, when Mayor de Blasio took office, that number was 51,470. It is now around 60,000.

Banks' testimony was followed by the General Welfare Committee's examination of the Administration for Children's Services.

by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

10 Key Data Points from Social Services Budget Hearing Mon, 27 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
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.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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 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]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Report Propels Debate Over City's Welfare Reforms Thu, 17 Mar 2016 02:39:26 +0000
In Departure from Predecessors, De Blasio Administration Overhauls City Welfare System banks de blasio shelter visit

Steve Banks, left, & de Blasio at a homeless shelter (Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office) 

The de Blasio administration is more than halfway through an ambitious overhaul of its welfare system that was initiated last year and is drawing strong reactions. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Steven Banks, who runs the city’s Human Resources Administration, did away with strict work requirements for people seeking public assistance and established a more conciliatory framework focused on workforce preparation.

In a controversial departure from the practices of their predecessors, they moved away from the  work-first model, created new metrics to gauge their progress, and decided to be less punitive. While Banks calls it a more humane approach, critics are sounding the alarm that the city is encouraging reliance on government cash.

Among many programs that the Human Resources Administration runs, including homelessness prevention and food stamps, the cash assistance welfare benefit is at the center of the reforms under de Blasio and Banks.

Left-leaning experts welcome the city’s new direction, which emphasizes enrollee training and education over immediate placement into often unpaid, unskilled jobs, creating, they say, long-term employability. However, critics from conservative think tanks and prior administrations believe the system is taking a step back to the bad old days when welfare enrollment swelled and, they say, the system encouraged dependence on government and perpetuated poverty.

Roughly 490,000 New Yorkers were on the welfare rolls over the course of 2015. Of HRA’s total budget of $9.8 billion, about $1.48 billion goes to these welfare recipients. This includes $650 million in city funding, nearly $266 million from the state and about $565 million in federal dollars. The average family of three receives about $826 per month under the system, while an individual receives roughly $485. A little more than 50,000 of those receiving cash assistance were required to participate in work activities and directly affected by the reforms.

Changes have raised key questions being debated by city officials, advocates, and analysts: Why focus on education and job training over work-first programs? Why are the welfare rolls increasing when the economy is experiencing unprecedented growth and food stamp enrollment has consistently fallen for years? What is the best way to move people off of public assistance?

Gotham Gazette spoke with Banks and two of his predecessors to delve into the mechanics of the welfare system and the changes Banks is making to it. Naturally, Banks defended his reforms, which his predecessors believe will burden the system, perpetuate unemployment, and do little to reduce poverty. “Some of the criticism has been that people would now be required to do nothing,” Banks said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Stress on 'Human'
When Mayor Bill de Blasio came to power, he foresaw a shake-up in most ways the city does business, especially in its approach to aiding and empowering those that a booming economy had left behind. Formerly the chair of the City Council general welfare committee with oversight of the city’s social service agencies, de Blasio wanted to avoid what he saw as missteps of his predecessors and infuse those services with more empathy and efficacy in helping lift people out of poverty.

In February 2014, de Blasio appointed former Legal Aid Society chief attorney Steven Banks to run the Human Resources Administration (HRA) and reform New York City’s gargantuan welfare system. The task was something of a culmination for Banks, who had spent years suing the city for what Legal Aid saw as more humane, effective treatment of New York’s most vulnerable.

“We have to make our government work for New Yorkers who need a helping hand – not against them,” Banks said at his appointment. “I am humbled by the opportunity to do so at an agency with a broad scope and impact like HRA, and I look forward to quickly putting Mayor de Blasio’s vision into practice.”

HRA’s mandate is to administer two key ongoing benefits - Temporary Assistance in cash and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also commonly known as food stamps) - along with a slew of other services including adult protective services, domestic violence services, HIV/AIDS services and emergency food assistance.

Temporary assistance takes two forms - the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Safety Net Assistance, which is funded by the state and city. Those who are able, must participate in work activities to receive benefits - requirements at the center of Banks’ reforms, and the criticism of them. The monetary benefits are placed onto a Common Benefits Identification Card (CBIC) twice a month electronically for disbursement to clients.

In order for HRA to receive state and federal funds for these programs, Banks had just eight months from his appointment to submit to the state a biennial employment plan to provide services to recipients of ongoing benefits. The plan would have to take into account state and federal laws on welfare work requirements and would have to be put into full effect within two years.

With the December 31, 2016 deadline looming, Banks believes the city is on track to meet its goal.

Later this month HRA will put out requests for proposals to re-bid all its employment services contracts. These services include employability determinations, development of employment plans, job skills training and education with the goal of restoring self-sufficiency.

One of the first measures that Banks implemented was creating an annual unduplicated count of cash assistance rolls which displayed a more accurate picture of enrollment in the welfare system. The previous method of relying on monthly enrollment data was often misleading, since it also includes recipients of emergency one-time assistance and does not account for the “churn” of people going on and off the rolls -- roughly one in four welfare recipients would return to the system within twelve months, according to HRA estimates.

This new counting system has shown virtually flat welfare enrollment annually, but a greater number of people on the welfare rolls by month, provoking criticism, which the administration has rebuked.

Banks also reformed the process that led to churn (and suppressed monthly totals) by changing how sanctions or penalties are imposed on benefit recipients who fail to follow the rules of work programs. In keeping with a recent law passed by the state, he not only made benefits more accessible but also addressed the duplicative workload on HRA staff which helped the city avoid a $10 million penalty from the state for excessive hearings. Fair hearings are the process by which recipients can appeal a sanction.

But the most significant departure from the policies that defined previous administrations is the phasing out of the contentious Work Experience Program -- which emphasized rapid placement of able-bodied welfare recipients into the workforce -- and replacing it with a refocus on job training and education for those seeking help from the city. The new system allows recipients of temporary assistance up to 24-years-old to participate in full-time basic education (GED, vocational training, etc.) and be exempt from work activities. It also allows participation in a four-year college degree program, full-time for the first 12 months and then with 20 hours of work requirements thereafter. Under the old rules, recipients older than 19 could only study full-time for one year.

Back to the Future
The Work Experience Program is a decades-old policy expanded under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that required public assistance recipients to work 35 hours each week at city agencies and nonprofits. Many critics of the program say participants received little to show for it, working menial or unpaid jobs in return for HRA benefits.

The policy, along with tough sanction procedures for those violating program rules, brought the welfare rolls down from an all-time monthly high of 1.1 million in 1993 (the year Giuliani was elected) to about 460,000 by the end of 2001 (Giuliani’s final year in office). Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who continued the policy, enrollment dropped even further, to about 339,513 monthly by the end of his third term, in 2013.

Under Mayor de Blasio, this monthly number has risen slightly over the last two years -- to 360,398 in December 2015. There is agreement on all sides that new HRA reforms led to this growth -- but experts cite varying justifications and draw widely different implications from it.

“The idea was to basically step away from the idea of ‘work-fare’ and re-emphasize education and job training,” said Alex Armlovich, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “If welfare rolls aren’t declining then it’s not working.”

Armlovich authored a report, released Wednesday, which benchmarked these trends in the welfare system. The report points out that monthly enrollment in public assistance increased while the 12-month job retention rate for former welfare recipients dropped from 75 percent in 2013 to 64 percent in 2015. Armlovich is less than enthusiastic about HRA’s move away from work placement. He believes delayed entry to the workforce is a detrimental measure and that under Bloomberg, the city “had a better formula.”

HRA spokesperson David Neustadt, in response to the Manhattan Institute report, pointed out that after May 2014, the agency changed the way it counts job placements. HRA no longer counts people who apply for one-time emergency assistance and already have a job. They also don’t count people who are rejected for assistance and later get a job on their own. “Neither situation should have been claimed as a job placement when reported in 2013,” Neustadt said in an email.

He also rejected the notion of relying on monthly numbers, as Armlovich did in the report, and pointed to the largely unchanged annual unduplicated count.

“Generally when the average person thinks of someone receiving “welfare” it’s someone on continuing cash assistance, not someone who gets one time emergency help with rent or utility bills,” Neustadt said. “Combining them would not seem to promote the most useful discussion of the issue.”

Tom Hilliard, senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future, a more liberal think tank, believes that the agency’s new direction is long overdue after years of policies that didn’t take into account changes in the economy. He said it is entirely possible, as has been alleged in the past, that the former administration pushed down the public assistance rolls, although not necessarily as part of a clear and intentional policy to juice numbers.

“It would be reasonable to say that there’s a natural snapback -- if you spent many years pushing down access to public assistance -- when you stop doing that,” he said.

Hilliard’s opinion was echoed by Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy. “The Giuliani administration put into effect work-first focused restrictive cash assistance programs,” she said. “Bloomberg basically continued the policy. The new de Blasio administration came in with a different perspective.”

Jason Turner was HRA Commissioner under Mayor Giuliani and was integral in designing the system. He is pessimistic about de Blasio’s reforms and expects the welfare caseloads to increase dramatically with little or no benefit to families. “The objective has changed from self-employment, self-reliance, or, rather, self-sufficiency and earned income, to income distribution without mutual obligation,” Turner said.

Current HRA Commissioner Banks has been quick to counter arguments that the city is easing requirements and allowing more New Yorkers to coast on the dole. The new measure of enrollment, the unduplicated annual count, has stayed relatively stable for the last seven years, he says, but critics are overly focused on the monthly count. In December 2008, the unduplicated number was 494,722 and in November 2015, it stood at 489,310, according to HRA.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Banks conceded that the monthly numbers would see fluctuations as the new plan is implemented, but the unduplicated count would be “essentially flat.”

“The reason why we focused on that is because the monthly number is susceptible to what happened in the past, which is, prior policies resulted in people being cut off,” Banks said.

Sanctioning Reforms
Part of the reason the temporary assistance system before Banks was a revolving door for 25 percent of clients was the sanction process for people who failed to comply with work activity rules. To receive cash assistance, clients had to commit a number of work hours each week and adhere to strict rules. Missing a single work appointment or failing to comply with a drug test without just cause, for instance, could lead to benefits being revoked for six months.

Sanctions were also often computer-generated, with little human involvement, and once imposed, prevented HRA clients from joining or participating in a training or education program, which was the basic requirement for receiving assistance. In 2015, according to estimates by the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, 21,474 cases were brought to a fair hearing after a sanction and only 242 were deemed valid.

These oft-critiqued sanctions have even been linked to homelessness -- HRA found that about 23 percent of people applying for shelter during a six-month period in 2013 had a case closing or sanctions in the prior twelve months. Under Banks, the agency eased sanctions for minor transgressions -- such as missing or being late to a work appointment -- and made it easier for people to appeal an unfair penalty. Then, in December 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law revamping the sanction process.

“This is a sensible, much-needed measure that will help ensure people on public assistance are not unjustly penalized and forced to go hungry or live on the street,” Cuomo said in a statement when he signed the legislation. The new rules allow recipients to re-enter welfare work programs more quickly and also require their cases to be reviewed by HRA staff members.

“Now families will no longer have to face being stuck unnecessarily in sanctions that prevent them from participating in work and job training and put them at risk of going to a homeless shelter,” Mayor de Blasio said in response to the law.

There is some disagreement as to whether it was necessary to ease these sanctions. Angela Rachidi, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former HRA deputy commissioner for policy research. She defended the outgoing approach. “In terms of the sanction process, there were a lot of opportunities for people to comply with the work requirements,” she said, adding that the 25 percent return of clients to cash assistance was low by industry standards.

Banks was quick to point out that while the sanctions had been reformed, they had not been erased. “Work activity is a core part of our mission because our mission is to help people move out of poverty,” he told Gotham Gazette. “And so the sanction process does not forgive anybody who does not participate in work activity.” Far from an arbitrary determination, he said HRA was simply following state guidance.

As Banks insisted, replacing the WEP with education and training programs wouldn’t mean that people “would now be required to do nothing.”

“That’s not the reform and that’s not what’s been happening,” he said.

Critics of HRA’s redirection point not to the fact that it moves away from a policy that seemed to work -- rather that it steps back into old territory they say was ineffective.

Under Mayor David Dinkins, when welfare enrollment skyrocketed, the administration’s approach was similar, stressing training and education. The failure of that program, as well as subsequent research by the MDRC, a think tank, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, led to the accepted wisdom in the Giuliani and Bloomberg years that work-first programs were more effective. Education and training, while made available, were not prioritized.

“What’s often not appreciated is that the strategy under Giuliani and Bloomberg had some serious research behind it,” said Center for an Urban Future’s Hilliard. “But that didn’t keep up with changes in the economy.”

Hilliard said changes in the labor force over the last generation have placed a “premium on education.”

“For adults with no more than a high school diploma, decent jobs are scarce. If you’re a high-school dropout, decent jobs are non-existent, for all intents and purposes,” he said.

Commissioner Banks cited these same reasons. City estimates show that 60 percent of welfare recipients who are required to participate in a work activity don’t have a high school degree.

“Since our mission is to help people move off the caseload and out of poverty, education and training is a really critical piece of it,” Banks said.

It’s also important to note that these programs don’t apply across the board. Out of the nearly 500,000 recurring clients on cash assistance, Banks estimates that only about 80,000 are required under federal and state regulations to undertake a work activity. The rest -- children, seniors, people with disabilities -- don’t need to work to qualify for assistance.

Of the 80,000, another 27,000, Banks said, are working and either underemployed or in minimum wage jobs that aren’t sufficient to support a family. That leaves just over 50,000 people who who are eligible for the new education and training regime -- which inherited a $200 million budget for these programs. Banks said participation rates in these programs have been steadily increasing.

“I am concerned that many of the policies being put in place by the de Blasio administration will lead to less employment for New Yorkers on welfare,” said former HRA Commissioner Robert Doar, “and that will lead to more poverty which will be harmful to the struggling families we all want to help.” Doar ran the agency from February 2007 till December 2013. He is currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Doar had the same objective as Banks: lifting people out of poverty. But, he prefers an employment-focused approach. Experts agree that education and training are vital for employability but some would rather see increased workforce participation first.

“If the training is working, let’s see it in the numbers,” said the Manhattan Institute’s Armlovich. “This realignment is not working,” he said, pointing to the rise in monthly welfare enrollment. He agrees that, in theory, getting educational credentials would improve chances of employment but he called it an “indefinite process” which will be hard to judge.

Rachidi, of the American Enterprise Institute, also pointed to the fact that education and training were available to welfare recipients under the former administration and people did avail themselves of those services.

“Quick job placement works for a majority of people. Education and job training should be available to them, but shouldn’t be pushed upon people,” she said, taking the stance that getting people into the workforce gives them the best, quickest chance of staying in it and advancing.

Turner, the HRA commissioner under Giuliani, took a harder line on the quick move to employment, however. “A life on welfare is a life without a future and a life in poverty by definition,” Turner said, insisting that recipients should start working as soon as possible and that lax work requirements would perpetuate poverty.

While Commissioner Banks cites the lack of educational qualifications of welfare recipients as the rationale behind education programs, both Turner and Rachidi say the opposite: that the low level of education is why training programs are not effective.

For Banks, his paradigm is a rejection of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for a more individualized and nuanced one. “The argument that training and education programs don’t work is belied by the economics of those who get a credential as a result of participating in training programs,” he said. “The mission of HRA is to move people out of poverty and moving people from one box to another - off the caseload, on to the caseload, off the caseload, on to the caseload -- isn’t ultimately a successful approach to moving people out of poverty."

(Recent research seems to be less certain about how job training and education programs compare with labor force development.)

Divergent Trends
The blowback against the Banks/de Blasio reforms, often captured on the pages of the New York Post, calls new requirements too soft and cites the recent increase in monthly welfare enrollment.

Putting aside issues around whether the rolls were kept down by prior administrations, some have questioned why the rolls have increased when the economy has been good and at the same time enrollment in food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) has fallen. SNAP enrollment in New York City fell from 1.8 million in Dec. 2011 to 1.68 million in Dec. 2015.

“If welfare rolls don’t follow SNAP case rolls, then I’m unconvinced,” said Armlovich. “Because these trends are divergent, it makes me skeptical of the idea that it’s just skilled-biased technical change making it harder for people to enter the workforce.”

Rachidi sees it similarly, although she noted that SNAP case rolls have fallen nationally. “Historically when the economy gets better and employment goes up, the welfare caseload goes down,” she said. “We’re not seeing that in [New York City’s] monthly or annual numbers.”

SNAP benefits, which are administered by HRA, are a complicated metric by which the system can be measured since they are federally determined. Recent federal cutbacks in the program may have led to decreased enrollment across the country -- an issue that was raised last month at a City Council hearing on hunger in the city. Under Banks, HRA has taken steps to increase SNAP participation, citing tens of thousands of eligible New Yorkers not enrolled. Like with any government program, participation is certainly not solely indicative of need.

Even judging enrollment based on the city’s economic performance is a tough prospect. After the onset of the Great Recession, welfare rolls did not spike dramatically, which can be attributed to other intervening factors such as unemployment insurance, Supplemental Security Income, and Medicaid, which act as a buffer against people accessing welfare.

But the basic measure, or at least the long-stated agency objective, from Jason Turner’s HRA through Robert Doar’s leadership to Commissioner Steven Banks, has been to reduce poverty by helping those able to work get by when their income doesn’t cover their expenses.

And if poverty is a measure of the efficacy of welfare systems, then there hasn’t been significant change in a very long time. The city poverty rate between 2005 and 2013 only changed marginally - increasing from 20.4 percent to 21.5 percent according to the Center for Economic Opportunity’s redefined poverty measure which accounts for the city’s housing costs and additional elements including income and payroll taxes and the value of in-kind nutritional and housing assistance. (The official federal estimates weren’t significantly different - increasing from 18.3 to 19.9 percent.) Even in 2014, poverty remained largely unchanged.

Converging Lanes
HRA reforms of cash assistance under Banks are only one aspect of the city’s new employment plan. The agency will soon release RFPs to re-bid existing employment contracts, for services to welfare recipients, which are aimed to be settled by the summer. At the same time, a number of ancillary measures have been put into motion, all of which dovetail with HRA efforts to fight homelessness.

Some of the changes include an additional $15.7 million to expand the city’s rental arrears program and a centralization of the rent processing system to help recipients avoid eviction. These payments are now paid electronically rather than in monthly physical checks which are susceptible to extensive delays. The agency has also introduced robocalls to remind people of work appointments and to follow up on missed appointments.

There has been increased investment in anti-eviction and housing court legal services. HRA is also implementing the recommendations of the mayor’s Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force, integrating city workforce development initiatives into the agency’s purview. Accordingly, the city will put into place a public assistance hiring requirement for human services contractors.

“HRA has always had a requirement but now HRA, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the Administration for Children’s Services, the Department of Youth and Community Development, the Department for the Aging, and the Department of Probation all will have requirements to hire a certain number of public assistance recipients from the HRA caseload depending on the value of their contracts,” Banks said.

HRA is also looking at establishing a first-hire consideration (not a requirement) for public assistance recipients in contracts other than human services. They have partnered with the Department of Small Business Services to open up access to HRA clients, starting with referrals when SBS has job calls.

HRA also works with Robin Hood Foundation grantees, which includes a small workforce development network.

An important initiative, started in January 2015, involved working with the City University of New York to help undergraduate students who receive cash assistance participate in a paid work study program that better matched their interests and field of study. These students could meet their work requirements without having to take part in an unpaid WEP position. By April 2015, when Banks testified before the state Senate, approximately 500 CUNY students had been moved from WEP slots into work study programs.

In the city’s January financial plan this year, additional funds were also transferred from DHS to HRA to run employment programs for clients in shelter.

There were also major ramifications through the agency from last year’s settlement, after ten years of litigation, of the Lovely H case regarding how people with disabilities are treated by HRA. The settlement requires, among other things, better screening methods to determine disability status of applicants, improved reasonable accommodation processes and better monitoring. HRA has also released an RFP for a comprehensive analysis of these needs.

“All of these changes are part of a very methodical process of implementing this two-year plan,” Banks said, “and that’s going to have, at the end, the ability to phase out WEP, to address individualized needs, and get clients on a career pathway as the mayor’s Jobs for New Yorkers Task Force concludes.”

Halfway There and Far From Home
To receive future funding, HRA’s new policies will have to be fully functional by the state’s Dec. 31 deadline - the state oversees New York social service districts, including the city, where Banks is the administrator. Banks is overseeing a major overhaul of a massive system, which takes time, and can include growing pains. There are also questions about when to measure efficacy.

American Enterprise Institute’s Rachidi and Manhattan Institute’s Armlovich think that the significant increase in the raw monthly enrollment as well as the marginal uptick in the unduplicated count provide cause for concern. For them, the verdict is out on whether Banks’ reforms have been or will be successful.

“We have to see that borne out in numbers before drawing conclusions that it’s working,” Armlovich said of the reforms. Rachidi believes the caseloads will tick up slowly over the next year or two. Jason Turner expects this to be a more dramatic increase.

For Center for an Urban Future’s Hilliard, it’s also too early to say, but he believes once the “nuts and bolts” such as new contracts are worked out, New York City’s welfare system will likely become a national model. Lower-Basch from CLASP agrees: “It’s a big system and does not make changes instantly,” she said.

Banks seems cautiously optimistic. He said monthly enrollment will continue to fluctuate and the annual numbers will remain flat. But he is confident that the reforms are on track and on time. Pushing back against his detractors, he said, “The parade of horribles that have been conjured up to argue against making reforms haven’t come to fruition.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In Departure from Predecessors, De Blasio Administration Overhauls City Welfare System Thu, 18 Feb 2016 18:40:09 +0000
Council to Assess Hunger Problem, City Efforts to Reduce It de blasio food thanksgiving

Mayor de Blasio serving food (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

The City Council’s Committee on General Welfare will hold an oversight hearing on hunger in New York City on Wednesday morning at City Hall.

Council Member Stephen Levin, the chair of the general welfare committee, told Gotham Gazette he and his colleagues want to get a broad assessment of hunger in the city, as well as specifics related to de Blasio administration efforts to mitigate the problem, which is the result, in large part, of high poverty rates.

At the hearing, Levin added, the committee would review increasing and decreasing barriers to the federally funded Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (otherwise known as SNAP or “food stamps”), SNAP enrollment, the status of food pantries, state hunger programs, and other components.

“We want to hear what initiatives this administration is taking,” Levin said. “We’re eager to hear what recommendations they’re able to put forward and hear...what they’re working on.”

Under Commissioner Steven Banks, Mayor de Blasio’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) has increased SNAP access, eased work requirements for agency clients, and enacted several other reforms. De Blasio also expanded the “breakfast after the bell” program for all public elementary schools, which advocates praised while recommending universal free school lunch.

Still, hunger remains a harsh reality for many New Yorkers.

As of last November, HRA was providing nutritional assistance to 1,686,941 New Yorkers, 45,406 fewer than a year before. In addition to the food stamps, one in five New Yorkers are assisted by the Food Bank of New York City, the major hunger relief organization that receives funding from the city, which reported in a recent survey of its agencies “that they had run out of food, or particular types of food, needed to make adequate meals or pantry bags” last September.

Continuing a decline that began under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, SNAP participation in the city has gone down under de Blasio. According to New York City Coalition Against Hunger executive director Joel Berg, a main cause of the decline is federal divestment of half a billion dollars in New York City SNAP funds.

“The amount of the benefits decreased and the caseloads decreased,” said Berg, who estimates that about 500,000 New Yorkers are eligible for nutritional assistance but don't receive it. “And so, there’s no question that lower benefit levels do also reduce participation.”

Lisa Levy, Coalition Against Hunger’s director of policy, advocacy and organizing, will testify at Wednesday’s hearing on behalf of the organization, Berg said.

Because SNAP is federally funded, the City Council is limited in actions it can take on nutritional assistance policy. “We have been investing more resources in food pantries through the Food Bank of New York City,” Council Member Ritchie Torres, a member of the general welfare committee, told Gotham Gazette. “But as with many issues, we are hamstrung by a Congress in Washington that is disinvesting, ever more deeply, in the city.”

Though New York City’s employment has recovered from the recession, Berg insists that this has not translated to reduced hunger. “The lines of pantries and kitchens are still as long as ever,” he said.

According to research from Coalition Against Hunger, many food insecure New Yorkers do indeed work. The group found that between 2012-2014, 48 percent of food insecure New Yorkers between the ages of 15 and 65 worked. While significant minimum wage raises being pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and others would likely reduce that number if enacted, there could be an unintended consequence of the wage hike for New Yorkers receiving nutritional assistance.

Berg, while praising the wage hikes, does worry that, “In some cases, particularly with single people, the amount of SNAP benefits they lose could exceed the value of the wage increase,” said Berg, who has advocated for raising the income level needed to receive food stamps to expand eligibility.

Council Member Levin indicated that he would look into the wage hike issue. “It’s hard to kind of predict, and I think you’d have to kind of drill down on the individual case and really that individual and that family’s situation,” he said. “But certainly, it’s something that we should be asking about.”

by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated.

Council to Assess Hunger Problem, City Efforts to Reduce It Mon, 11 Jan 2016 22:22:40 +0000
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.

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 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,, 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.”

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

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