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A New Program to Fight Homelessness

This article was corrected on June 7, 2007. For more information, see our Corrections Page.

Less than three years after the city implemented its Housing Stability Plus rent subsidy program, the Bloomberg administration is set to eliminate it. In its place, it will launch Advantage New York, a new rent subsidy targeting homeless New Yorkers.

A lot of advocates are saying good riddance to Housing Stability Plus, better known by it is initials, HSP. At a recent forum, recipients recounted horror stories of bad apartments, opaque rules and confusing administration of the program. In some cases, beneficiaries complained that landlords asked them for extra money on the side.

“No one wants to deal with HSP,” said Bronx advocate Betty Robinson. “It’s very stressful. It’s hard to reach the caseworkers (to resolve problems). The rents are ridiculous for the conditions that people are working in.”

But while advocates are pleased to see Housing Stability Plus go, many question whether Advantage New York represents a substantial improvement.

The End of One Program…

The Department of Homeless Services designed Housing Stability Plus to replace using the federal Section 8 rent subsidy to pay for permanent housing for people in city shelters. Housing Stability Plus, city officials said, would reduce the record number of people in city homeless shelters.

But according to the numbers, the homeless problem is worse today than it was two years ago, at least for families. In 2004, when Housing Stability Plus was introduced, 8,832 families and 8,650 individual adults were in city shelters. While the adult shelter population has decreased slightly to 7,313 people, the number of families in shelter has increased to 9,189.

The administration claims the subsidy helped 10,000 families move into permanent housing, with four percent of them eventually returning to city shelters. But the city has acknowledged faults in Housing Stability Plus, and Commissioner of Homeless Services Robert Hess, barely a year into his job, has been working to modify it. The commissioner could not be reached for comment.

…And the Beginning of Another

The new subsidy program will go into effect shortly before the administration expands its HomeBase homelessness prevention program. Once serving just six community board districts, HomeBase centers will go citywide July 1. By all accounts, the city will heavily rely HomeBase in an effort to prevent homelessness, rather than treat the problem after it occurs.

Advantage New York on the other hand will help homeless families leave shelters. To accomplish this, it will pay their rent, but require them to work at least 20 hours per week to receive the subsidy. The program includes job training and will assist families in getting other public benefits, like food stamps, Medicaid and child care. And the program requires that families save some money and that the city match the savings at the end of the program. This is intended to help families have some additional money when their benefits run out.

“We think we have crafted the most substantial and generous work incentive local subsidy program ever,” Hess told a hearing of the City Council’s General Welfare Committee recently. “And we think many people will do very, very well, after a year, more after two years. Some will need support after that and therefore the HomeBase aftercare support program” is available.

What It Does – and Does Not -- Do

Work Advantage addresses some of the issues advocates had raised concerning Housing Stability Plus. To deal with the concerns about apartment quality, the homeless services department will apply federal housing quality standards to Work Advantage apartments. And the administration has expanded eligibility for the program to the working poor, not just homeless families who receive public assistance benefits. But like Housing Stability Plus, Work Advantage does not provide an answer for all families on public assistance who cannot work. It would provide help to some of them -- people on disability, with cases before the Administration for Children's Services or who need “one-shot” assistance to get back on their feet.

About 80 percent of people in shelters are on public assistance, according to homeless services. But the department hopes the Advantage program will encourage more of the shelter residents to find work.

And the program would provide benefits for two years only, compared with the maximum of five years in Housing Stability Plus. Councilmember Bill de Blasio, chairman of the General Welfare Committee, questioned this change, probably the biggest difference between the old and new programs.

“The administration didn’t make HSP a five-year program by accident,” de Blasio said. “It was five years for a reason and I think there was recognition of the time it can take.”

Hess said the city would address each case separately. “To the extent the families are successful after a year of Work Advantage, great,” he told City Council. “To the extent they are successful after two years, super. The families after three years that still need support, we will figure out how to get them that support through HomeBase, using the aftercare workers. And if that means some of those families need a longer term subsidy, that will be our job how to figure out how to get them that subsidy.”

But advocates fear the city’s latest approach will not be effective, partly because significant elements of it require approval from state and federal agencies.

More significantly, the city’s numbers simply do not add up, advocates say. One analysis by Victor Bach of the Community Service Society showed that families on public assistance, whose first jobs pay an average of $7.80 an hour, would have to get huge raises to afford to pay their rents after one year or two, even with the savings Advantage New York would help them amass.

“The administration’s belief that most people won’t need help after one or two years flies in the face of its own research,” said Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Steve Banks, chief attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said the city’s approach amounted to social experimentation on homeless people.

“There are real problems with the operation of this program,” Banks said at the council hearing. He pointed to the subsidy’s proposed time limit and the fact that families with no income beyond public assistance will not be eligible for it.

When it introduced Housing Stability Plus in 2004, the administration said it wanted to reduce the number of people who were going to shelters primarily so they would become eligible for Section 8 vouchers or public housing. But critics of Advantage New York believe Section 8 vouchers and apartments in public housing remain the most effective tools for finding permanent housing for homeless families.

“All three previous administrations used a combination of prevention, shelter and referrals to Section 8,” Banks said. “For whatever reason, the current administration has chosen not to do that. Now it’s coming back and proposing a new program.”

Brosnahan Sullivan said the mayor seemed to be giving up on resolving the homelessness problem, after pledging last year to reduce the number of homeless people by two-thirds before he leaves office.

“In essence Mayor Bloomberg is punting this enormous problem to whomever takes his job in 2009,” she said.

At the town hall forum on Housing Stability Plus, Archdeacon Mike Kendall of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, was more cutting. Helping the homeless “does not mean more government bureaucracy and all sorts of tricky sounding programs,” Kendall said. “It means to care.”

Joe Lamport is the assistant director of the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court, a coalition of community housing organizations.  

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