Gotham Gazette Thu, 01 Oct 2020 07:58:30 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) What's Next for the City's Massive 100 Million-Meal Emergency Food Program? 1 meal hub ps1

Mayor de Blasio at a school food hub (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The uncertainty around how New York City public schools will be reopened come September extends to the emergency food initiative greatly expanded by city government during the devastating coronavirus outbreak that led to mass unemployment and food insecurity, as a large portion of the program was using public schools to distribute millions of free meals.

A part of the massive program that has distributed over 100 million free meals since March will likely shift as students and staff return to schools that have served as central emergency food hubs during the pandemic shutdown. While New Yorkers of all stripes, including families, could pick up “grab-and-go” meals at more than 400 school sites across the five boroughs five days a week, many others received more than 1 million meals a day through home delivery and still others received emergency sustenance through food pantries and other means.

With the planned shift in how school buildings are used, it’s not yet clear how the city intends to distribute emergency food or even what the need will be come September, in part due to the unknowns around the city’s economic revival. Whereas schools have long been a source of two meals a day for many low-income students and became logical food pick-up hubs during the shutdown, a school reopening where students are only in school buildings two or three days a week creates a complicated picture on many fronts, including food.

A month out from the planned reopening of schools, those leading the city’s emergency food program acknowledge that plans are not yet set for how meal distribution will work after Labor Day. While some students will attend school up to three days a week, parents can completely opt their children out of in-person learning, and although there is a commitment by -- but not yet a plan from -- top officials to provide students with meals, it’s unclear how many food insecure adults without children have been utilizing the school food pick-up sites over the past months and whether or not they will be able to continue to do so.

Grab & Go Meals
The city’s emergency program, called GetFoodNYC, is led by the city’s “food czar,” a position Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on March 21, when he said Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia would take the new role. Soon after being appointed, Garcia helped stand up efforts to make 470 Department of Education sites, almost all of which were schools, available to provide three meals a day to children under 18 (and, later, to families and then also adults without children as of April 3), and develop and expand other emergency food programming.

It is the school pick-up piece of the program that Garcia and the city have yet to make concrete plans to continue once schools reopen.

“DOE [Department of Education] is planning carefully around reopening,” said Department of Sanitation Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs Joshua Goodman, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Until we know what school reopening will look like, we cannot know exactly what Grab & Go meal operations may look like – but our commitment will remain the same, that no New Yorker should go hungry due to the pandemic.”

It was only late last Thursday that de Blasio revealed the most detailed plan yet as to how schools will reopen, which includes measures to immediately close down classrooms where one or more students test positive for coronavirus, and to close down entire buildings if two or more students in different classrooms test positive. It also requires students or teachers who feel sick to stay home and allows for families to opt into an all-remote learning option. About 26% of families would prefer that option, no matter the safety precautions taken, according to a Department of Education survey reported on by the Wall Street Journal. For students returning to school buildings, it will only be for one to three days a week. Individual school plans are in the process of being designed, though they in part rely on what student enrollment will look like, forming something of a chicken-or-the-egg relationship.

Before they were closed, New York City public schools were serving more than 1 million meals a day, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO), with Garcia saying in an interview that New York City public schools are “maybe the largest feeding program in the country.”

“If schools are truly reopening, [the grab-and-go locations] are a lot less important,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a non-profit dedicated to connecting those experiencing food insecurity to services and advocating for legislation to address hunger. “That would certainly be a good thing in reducing hunger. And, you know, there are 1,600 schools so even if  that closes down 400 alternative sites, some adults may be missing out but far more kids would be fed so that would be a worthwhile trade-off.”

But that progress will be significantly complicated by the part-time nature of schooling for many students in the fall and the fact that untold number of students will not be going to school buildings at all.

When assessing the grab-and-go program, the IBO found evidence supporting Berg’s point about the benefits of students accessing food in schools, as the pick-up program did not serve as a replacement for in-school meals.

“While quickly established, the Grab & Go sites have not fully met the problem of hunger and food insecurity across the city,” the report states. “In the last week of April, the sites provided an average of 305,000 meals a day, well below the number schools typically served.”

However, IBO did find that nearly 90% of students were within half a mile of the grab-and-go locations, and more than half "were located in census tracts where the average household income was below or near the poverty threshold,” with the majority of sites located in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The report is based on data from March 30, though, and the program has expanded significantly since. It also does not include other emergency food efforts besides the grab-and-go program.

“More than 400 meal hubs at DOE sites across the city are distributing around 500,000 meals per day to people in need,” Goodman said in a statement when asked about the IBO report, published at the end of July. “This is an incredible achievement, part of a broader operation that has now served more than 100 million meals since the pandemic began to ensure no New Yorker goes hungry. We appreciate the IBO’s role but are deeply proud of the work of DOE staff and the NYC Food Czar team.”

Moving forward, the city hopes the grab-and-go program will be used in conjunction with school meals. As although students will not be attending school every day, some not at all, the city is committed to maintaining a grab-and-go program that operates every day for students, according to Garcia’s office. How it will do so, and whether it will extend to families or adults without children, is still unclear.

That population of adults without children, as Berg alluded to, is one with few resources dedicated directly to them. Besides the grab-and-go program that is first and foremost for students and their families, GetFoodNYC’s food delivery service is meant for seniors or those who cannot risk going outside due to medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

It is unclear how large the population is of those who have been accessing grab-and-go meals at school sites but are not members of families with schoolchildren, and how many may lose out on free meals if the grab-and-go program reverts to being only for children or families with children, as the program does not collect demographic data, in order to avoid discouraging use.

Deepening Struggles for New Yorkers
There are more than 800,000 people in New York City who were unemployed as of June 2020, according to the New York State Department of Labor, maing for a roughly 20% unemployment rate, a massive increase from the roughly 4% at the start of March. This is just one measure of many indicating the extent of economic devastation due to the pandemic, and the growing food insecurity because of it.

Berg described the substantial spike in need caused by the pandemic as “better than the Great Depression but worse than it’s been in modern times.” He said that, although New York has made substantial and important progress addressing the problem, there are still hungry New Yorkers in need of further assistance.

“It’s certainly better than starving and New York City’s actually doing better than the rest of New York State, and really doing less bad than the rest of the country,” Berg said. “But when the Mayor says, ‘we’re going to make sure no one’s going hungry,’ that’s not true, either, because people were going hungry before this and they’re certainly going hungry now.”

From March 21 to June 6 there were over 1 million more unemployment claims compared to the same time period in 2019, according to a recent report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The number of SNAP (food stamps) recipients increased by 8% from March to May, according to statistics from the New York City Human Resources Administration. Prior to the pandemic, SNAP enrollment had been decreasing, with about a 5% decrease from February 2019 to February 2020. The city’s massive emergency food program may have actually led to fewer SNAP sign-ups than may have otherwise occurred amid the economic shock.

According to the results of a poll by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), 35% of New York City households said in April that they had received food from an emergency food source in the past month, and 21% of New Yorkers said they were unable to buy groceries because of lack of money following the COVID-19 outbreak and its fallout.

Those facing financial and food insecurity who are neither seniors nor adults with children may turn to other resources meant to help anyone going hungry, according to Garcia.

“I do think that there will be a set of people that, due to the economic downturn, will need support through food pantries and soup kitchens and the grab-and-go program,” Garcia said.

Food Pantries
But many food pantries are struggling, too, due to the pandemic, with 75% of food pantries and soup kitchens serving more New Yorkers in April 2020 than in the months leading up to COVID-19, according to a survey by Food Bank for New York City. That report also found that 

“At the outbreak’s peak, roughly 40% of the city’s soup kitchens and food pantries were closed, largely because they are run by seniors who are at high risk during the health crisis.”

Food pantries do provide substantially less support to food insecure New Yorkers compared to government programs like SNAP, though, with Berg saying government programs support nearly 20 times more food than food pantries. Still, food pantries can be a vital source of food for those in need.

Ceasar Tobar-Acosta, who heads the food pantry at the Bronx’s Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, described the pre-COVID pantry as relying on small donors and serving 10-20 people a day.

“Our numbers shot up from us doing weeks of serving 20 in a day to us, as of last Friday, 150 people showing up a day,” Tobar-Acosta said of how things changed once the pandemic worsened, in a July 21 interview.

Tobar-Acosta said, besides the increase in demand and addition of precautions to prevent spreading the disease, COVID-19 resulted in the pantry relying on a new type of donors, namely large non-profits. It also received food from the GetFoodNYC program.

At one point, though, the food pantry almost had to close due to the increase in demand but limited supply. Of food pantries that did close, a disproportionate number were in the Bronx, where 50% closed, 90% of which were in high-need communities, according to the Food Bank for New York City report.

“As someone born and raised in the Bronx my entire life, it is very easy to see how…the Bronx very much captures why New York City is a tale of two cities. When you see all these resources, a lot of money, but then you see, hey, there’s a lot of communities that don’t get this funding,” Tobar-Acosta said. “When you’re already living in a food insecure place, the second a pandemic hits you are significantly worse-off because your community already does not have those supplies for a number of reasons. And the Bronx is one of those places where there are a lot of food insecure areas of the Bronx already.”

With job loss exacerbating an already-pressing crisis, Tobar-Acosta mentioned one customer of the food pantry who is an essential worker and works a 12-hour shift, but still needs assistance. Many community members are also said to be faced with the tough decision of leaving their jobs and collecting unemployment, or receiving zero-hour work-weeks for some period of time as local employers needed to cut back on costs during the pandemic. 

“Most definitely there’s a visible impact of job loss. We see newer and newer faces as the days pass,” Tobar-Acosta. “They can’t go back to their old jobs, because on paper they voluntarily left even though the other option was you don’t get paid.”

Those facing job loss will likely continue to need assistance, even as, hopefully, the public health crisis continues to improve and the city economy continues to reopen. Garcia said she hopes GetFoodNYC will be able to continue to “fill in the gaps” by providing increased assistance to food pantries. She also said it is likely that many of the food pantries that closed were smaller and may have opened back up since the height of the pandemic.

Support for food pantries and other emergency food efforts received huge boosts of funding from all levels of government during the pandemic.

Garcia said most of the funding for GetFoodNYC, specifically, comes from the federal government.

“We anticipate that the covid emergency is going to get extended nationally, just based on where we are,” Garcia said in an interview. “We have to re-up the program every 30 days under FEMA but it has been accepted under FEMA funding, so that has been what has underwritten emergency feeding during this time.”

The city also dedicated a significant amount of funding, such as a $170 million initiative, “Feeding New York,” announced by de Blasio on April 15, which Garcia was charged with executing. The plan dedicated funding to the Food Reserve (an existing emergency reserve of nonperishable goods that the city has in case of a crisis, like the pandemic), suggested that grocery stores require workers and customers to wear face masks, and initiated the scaling up of the food delivery system through the Department of Education and Department for the Aging (DFTA), an area where GetFoodNYC has contributed greatly.

City funds for emergency food efforts and GetFoodNYC have also come from through New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), which had a total budget for food (including funds for Emergency Food Assistance, the GetFoodNYC program, and the Food Reserve) of $73.4 million in fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, according to the IBO. That number is expected to drop slightly for fiscal year 2021, to $71 million, per the recently-adopted fiscal year 2021 budget.

In both years, city funding for food pantries and soup kitchens was about $21 million, according to IBO. For 2021, the other $50 million goes toward the Food Reserve, suggesting that the GetFoodNYC program will continue to be almost entirely reliant on federal funds moving forward. (This is not a complete picture of emergency food funding, as other agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Sanitation Department, are somewhat involved with such efforts.)

The city took other measures, too, to address growing needs including matching a state government $25 million allocation toward food banks for food and personnel, which was estimated to provide 2.1 million food packages each consisting of nine meals for a total of 19 million meals, according to a City Council press release. The city also deployed city staff to 14 food pantries short on volunteers.

And in addition to emergency funds via FEMA, the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program with $500 million on March 18. There was also the CARES Act, which provided $15.5 billion to support SNAP, $35 million for WIC, $38 million for Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) Commodities, $16 million for TEFAP Administration, and $450 million for food banks on March 27.

On top of that, Congress passed a pandemic-EBT program that gives families with children who would have received public school meals with electronic debit cards, something Berg said would result in around $400 million worth of food going to roughly 1 million New York City kids.

Home Delivery for the Most Vulnerable
One of the major areas the de Blasio administration put funds into through the GetFoodNYC program was home-delivered meals for seniors and those with pre-existing medical conditions, two populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19 that had unique challenges, besides financial stress, in accessing food — namely, the risk of contracting the disease while grocery shopping or picking up food.

Even before Garcia was even named food czar, though, the New York City Department for the Aging knew this would be a problem when the city closed hundreds of senior centers in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19. DFTA immediately converted the centers to sites for preparing and sending out delivered meals to seniors’ homes, expanding on an existing meal-delivery program for those who are mostly or completely homebound. The week senior centers were closed, 96,000 meals were distributed to senior centers to then be delivered, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for DFTA Suzanne Myklebust told Gotham Gazette at the time.

But, there was still a need for seniors and others who could not risk going outside due to medical conditions that made them more susceptible to COVID-19, especially at the height of the pandemic.

“We do think that there is a group of seniors that one, shouldn’t be going out, and two, are very food insecure,” Garcia said. “And that their usual option of a senior center congregate food setting isn’t going to come into play for quite some time.”

Garcia and her team worked to quickly create the food-delivery system within GetFoodNYC, which uses drivers licensed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission to deliver meals from large distribution centers, helping to provide devastated drivers with income while also feeding needy New Yorkers. The program ramped up fast and began delivering 1 million meals a day as of the week of May 27, and from mid-March to mid-June the New York City government served 70 million free meals.

“I worked in government for eight years in the Clinton administration, a big bureaucracy, and the magnitude of what New York City did, it can’t be overstated,” said Berg. “They did in the course of a few weeks what typically would take government years to plan.”

The program was developed in part by enterprise software company Unqork, where former New York City Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway works as the head of its public enterprise initiative. Holloway worked in the Bloomberg administration during Superstorm Sandy, when he first saw the need to develop software quickly and at scale to address a crisis. The GetFoodNYC app developed for the current crisis over the course of a weekend, Halloway said on the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast, and made it possible for individuals to fill out a survey to see if they qualify for the program, and order if they do, and had another side for TLC drivers to sign up for delivery shifts, as well as an administrative back-end.

“It has been an enormous team effort across a lot of agencies to make this work, I would say an alphabet soup of agencies,” Garcia said in the interview. “And a real commitment by the city to make sure that no one went hungry. What you would traditionally do, like run a soup kitchen for food, clearly was not going to be our go-to in the middle of a pandemic, so I think there was a certain amount of commitment and creativity to getting this done that has to do with a real team of people that felt like this was incredibly important work.”

Although the program received some criticism for not initially providing kosher and halal meals, by mid-May it had 18 sites serving kosher meals and 32 sites providing halal meals, strategically placed in communities with large Jewish or Muslim populations. Another issue was questions of how nutritious the meals were, with some recipients describing accounts where they were given snacks rather than actual meals, as reported by Gothamist. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and New York City Council Member Ben Kallos of Manhattan introduced a bill on May 20 to develop nutrition standards for the meals in both the delivery and grab-and-go parts of the program. There have also been issues with delivery accuracy and waste of some meals that have sat in warehouses.

“We take food waste extremely seriously, and doing so is part of how we have been able to distribute over 100 million meals successfully,” Goodman said in a statement. “At this scale, we rely on all New Yorkers to let us know right away if there is ever a problem, at or by calling 311. We can often fix problems same day if they are brought to our attention.”

Garcia has also acknowledged hiccups in the program, saying “the challenge was also just dealing with the scale of the crisis at the moment of the crisis and the huge need that just went flying through the roof, and keeping up with that and trying to make sure we had enough food, food that was religiously appropriate and being able to make that sync together,” she said in a recent appearance on What’s The [DATA] Point?, which is produced by Gotham Gazetteand Citizens Budget Commission.

Goodman has also repeatedly responded to some of this criticism on Twitter, saying, for example: “To meet incredible scale (1M meals/day) we work with dozens of vendors - over 30 and growing. Some serve fresh food, some frozen, some shelf-stable, which is things like canned tuna, soups, packaged milk, maybe pita chips,” and “This is a huge operation of *emergency* food - but as Mayor and Commissioner Garcia stated, must be healthy and nutritious. If someone receives a meal that doesn't meet our standards, let us know at so we can fix and hold vendor accountable.”

Looking Ahead
Garcia said the need for home-delivered meals, especially among seniors, will likely remain for some time as COVID-19 makes it unsafe for senior centers to return even as the city moves through reopening phases.

For some of those seniors, they have relied on a similar to but more comprehensive program than the GetFoodNYC food delivery service run by DFTA, which has been serving elderly New Yorkers who need food delivered due to illness or disability for years, partially through a partnership with Citymeals on Wheels.

The budget for the Home Delivered Meals program (HDM), unlike HRA’s emergency food budget, did see a 25% decrease from $59.7 million in fiscal year 2020 to $44.6 million in fiscal year 2021, according to the IBO. However, some of that decrease is a result of a lack of discretionary funding DFTA received for HDM from the City Council in the 2021 city budget that it had received the year prior, according to DFTA.

“For 30 years, DFTA’s Home Delivered Meals (HDM) program has provided nutritious meals to older New Yorkers who are homebound due to severe illness or disability. This program has been operating long before the COVID-19 crisis and will continue operating long after,” Myklebust said in a statement. “This year, we issued an RFP to increase meal options for this program, including the availability of culturally aligned meals that reflect our City’s diversity, all while ensuring that meals continue to be high quality, healthy and nutritious. A top priority for DFTA and the City is that no older New Yorker goes hungry during this pandemic and that all who need meals has access to them, either through the HDM program or GetFoodNYC.”

Garcia remains hopeful about the city’s ability to meet need even if there is a second covid wave in the fall, saying, “Our programs are pretty flexible in our ability to dial up if need be.”

Berg is not as hopeful. Although he said he gives the city “a lot of kudos” for taking the substantial steps it did, he maintains that higher wages for workers, more than food pantries or federal programs, are key to combating food insecurity. He said the large amount of food pantries within the city are relatively new, compared to in the 1970s when better conditions for workers meant they were relatively unneeded.

And despite the funding already dedicated to addressing hunger nationwide, statewide, and citywide, Berg said that without another substantial federal stimulus package, New Yorkers — especially those who are low-income — will be in a very tough spot.

“I’ve been in this job 19 years and there’ve been three truly catastrophic events: 9/11, the 2008 Wall Street collapse, and then Hurricane Sandy. In all of those, low-income people suffered the most and it took years and years and years to recover,” Berg said. “Hungry people are the first to get the problem and the last to recover, last to be rehired, last to get wage increases. And I’m worried the current political environment isn’t building the public safety net we need.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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What's Next for the City's Massive 100 Million-Meal Emergency Food Program? Tue, 04 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Requests for Emergency Rent Grants Fell During Pandemic, But Expected to Skyrocket When Evictions Resume tenants eviction protections rally

Tenants on edge amid eviction moratorium (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

A city-run emergency grant program that helps keep people in their homes has seen fewer applications during the COVID-19 pandemic, seemingly due to a moratorium on evictions. But housing advocates worry that the program will be hard pressed to respond to a “tsunami of evictions” that is likely to follow once the moratorium ends, which could happen as early as next month.

As the pandemic raged across New York City, more than a million people lost their jobs, income, and ability to pay rent, leading to skyrocketing applications for city benefits in the form of food stamps and cash assistance, which are provided by the city’s Department of Social Services/Human Resources Administration. In March, Governor Andew Cuomo imposed a 90-day eviction moratorium, which was later extended for certain tenants through August 20, and negotiated a suspension of utility shutoffs with major providers (in June, he signed that moratorium into law as well).

As a likely result of those measures, the Department of Social Services gave out nearly half the number of “one-shot” emergency assistance grants in June as it did in February. One-shot deals are intended to provide housing stability by helping with rent, mortgage, and utility payments, staving off eviction, foreclosure, homelessness, and other negative outcomes through help to individuals and families during a rough patch. Two out of three one-shots are awarded for rent arrears, according to DSS.

These grants are distinct from recurring assistance that is provided on a regular basis to those in need who qualify for certain city subsidy programs. Isaac McGinn, a spokesperson for DSS, said eligibility is determined on a case-by-case basis, assessing whether a grant can prevent an imminent eviction and whether the client can continue to afford to pay the rent going forward.

Since the pandemic hit, one-shots have fallen dramatically, from 3,803 households (covering 8,021 people) in February to 1,814 households (3,993 people) in June, a 53.2% decrease. The number of cases in June was about 49.5% lower than in June 2019, according to DSS data.

“In these unprecedented times, as New York City reopens and continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and New Yorkers get back on their feet, helping New Yorkers remain stably housed is our top priority––and we are doing all we can to protect tenants and continue leveling the playing field,” said McGinn.

Two looming potential deadlines could make for an expected flood of evictions and a corresponding increase in the number of people seeking assistance from the city. The governor has not indicated whether he will extend the eviction moratorium beyond August 20. First, on July 31 the additional weekly $600 federal unemployment benefit that was included in the CARES Act is set to expire. Congress is currently considering a second major round of stimulus funding, which could include direct payments as well as unemployment benefits, but it’s unclear when that will pass and what it might include. And while housing courts have been closed in New York for months, they partially reopened a few weeks ago before the Office of Court Administration issued guidance to pause all eviction proceedings till August 5.

While the state did pass and is now implementing a $100 million rent relief voucher program for low-income New Yorkers who have lost income, some are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature to take additional action along with more federal aid.

“We are about to go over a cliff here in this city, in terms of people potentially losing their housing and we have to stop it,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his daily press briefing on Tuesday. “We need help from the federal government. We need rental assistance money for the people of this city and people all over the country who are facing this challenge. We need the State of New York to pass the laws that will give people the ability to pay the rent when they finally have an income but make sure no one is evicted simply because they can't pay the rent. We have so many things we have to do, and we're looking for every possible innovation.”

Housing advocates are worried that the city and state aren’t taking strong enough steps to prevent what could easily become a major additional homelessness crisis as a massive number of tenants are evicted from their homes. According to a July 8 Bloomberg Businessweek report citing the Community Housing Improvement Program, a trade association of rent-stabilized property owners, about one in four New York City apartment tenants had not paid their rent since March.

“There’s going to be a huge demand for one-shots,” said City Council Member Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on General Welfare, calling them a “valuable tool” in the city’s belt. “The city should be prepared to process a huge influx of applications for one-shots and they should be prepared to be able to do that very quickly.”

Levin said the state needs to cancel rent and mortgages if it wants to avoid the inevitable fallout at the end of August. “It’s really hard to contemplate or even fathom how devastating it could be,” he said. And he said there should be mechanisms where the city and state can cover future rent as well as back rent. “We don’t have the capacity to deal with a huge influx into the shelter system. It's unsafe as a public health policy. We don't want people in congregate settings at all,” he said, referencing the ongoing pandemic. “It’s incredibly destabilizing to families. So all around, it’s a better investment to prevent families from entering the shelter system to begin with.”

One-shot assistance, which typically costs about $200 million annually, is among a suite of related housing and assistance programs that the city employs. McGinn of DSS said that the rent arrears program serves all New Yorkers who qualify and funding for it does not run out. The city also helps people with monthly rent payments and provides free legal assistance to many low-income tenants facing eviction in housing court.

Ellen Davidson, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, was not surprised that the number of one-shot grants have dropped, since they often require an individual to show a future ability to pay rent.

“We have no reason to believe that there's enough staff to even process all of the applications that are coming their way,” Davidson said of DSS and the expected boom in need. “And considering that once someone is in housing court, time is of the essence, if applications get so backed up that they're not processed, people would be evicted who would qualify for rent arrears grants.”

She said the city should ease some of the requirements for one-shots, particularly as many tenants may still be unable to show that they can make their rent in the months ahead, which is a prerequisite for the program.

Davidson worries that the administration could choose to use federal funds to balance the budget rather than provide rent relief to tenants, pointing out that the city received nearly $400 million and has not shown how that has been spent. “The amount of attention that this administration has put toward the extreme risk that tenants are facing? They've spent no time on it. It's not on their radar screen,” she said of the de Blasio administration. “Everyone else has been talking about the eviction tsunami. It's just not something that the city seems to care about.”

Cea Weaver, from the Housing Justice for All coalition, similarly said the city and state should not be waiting for federal funds when there are measures they can take right now. “We need Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature to act,” Weaver said. “I don’t think it’s OK to pass it off to the feds when the state government has the ability to raise taxes on corporate landlords and all rich people. We have the ability to raise revenue in our state to pay for things like housing assistance and housing support and we should be doing them in this moment of crisis.”

When asked about the plight of tenants who may owe months of back rent once the pandemic eases, Cuomo has repeatedly touted the eviction moratorium as a temporary fix without offering a long-term solution. In an interview with NY1’s Roma Torre on Wednesday, he said the moratorium had “removed the anxiety and the pressure altogether of rent.”

“It's for the entire COVID crisis,” he said of the moratorium. “We have not yet determined when the COVID crisis is over, because the COVID crisis isn't over. And then obviously, it's not going to be one day the virus disappears. There'll be a recovery period. So we'll have to figure that out.”

The city, Weaver said, should urge housing courts and marshalls to not carry out evictions while investing funds in the rent programs that have proven effective.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Requests for Emergency Rent Grants Fell During Pandemic, But Expected to Skyrocket When Evictions Resume Thu, 23 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
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.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

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