Health and housing are tied (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
As roughly 50,000 men, women and children sleep in a New York City homeless shelter each night and the number of people living unsheltered on the streets and subways has increased, the powers that be in Albany bear a large portion of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. It is time that we take a long hard look at what state government has done in this regard instead of putting all the blame on City Hall.
According to the very comprehensive State of the Homeless report published annually by the Coalition for the Homeless, the state government continues, as it has for many years, to receive failing grades on almost every metric. With regard to meeting the needs of unsheltered New Yorkers, New York State received a failing grade on five of the six metrics and a “D-” on the other one. In addition it received similar grades on the operation of the shelter system, housing, and institutional discharge planning.
On this last category, each year since 2015 more than 40% of people released from state prisons to New York City were released directly to shelters. This amounted to an average of about 3,500 a year. As Gotham Gazette recently reported, little is being done to help those leaving prison find stable housing, and so many wind up going directly into the shelter system, with some then leaving for the streets.
The homelessness crisis is being seen more and more as a mental health crisis, which it is in part, and once again New York State bears a heavy responsibility for what we now see. The state psychiatric center system that once served 93,000 New Yorkers has now dwindled to an insufficient 2,330 beds.
Meanwhile, nothing paints a better picture of how state government has abandoned homeless New Yorkers than how the shelters are funded. As the cost of New York City Department of Homeless Services shelters rose by nearly $1.2 billion between fiscal years 2011 and 2021, the city was left to pick up 95% of the increase for single adult shelters and 32% of the increase for family shelters. While the state covered a mere 4% of the additional cost for single adult shelters and 7% for family shelters.
The new state budget is somewhat better but far from acceptable. Lawmakers passed a budget that does little to house homeless New Yorkers, according to exasperated advocates and policymakers. “It’s pretty dreadful,” said Legal Aid Society Supervising Attorney Judith Goldiner.
During protracted negotiations, the governor and legislators axed a proposed Section 8-style rent subsidy for New Yorkers experiencing or at-risk of homelessness. Governor Kathy Hochul and her budget team said it was too expensive.
While New York City and State are facing this monumental task of substantially reducing homelessness they must be equal partners. In California, which is also facing a homelessness crisis, a new approach has emerged.
California has a new plan to get people off the streets and into treatment. CARE (Community Assistance Recovery and Empowerment) Courts connect a person in crisis with a court-ordered Care Plan for up to 12 months, with the possibility to extend for an additional 12 months. The framework provides individuals with a clinically-appropriate, community-based set of services and supports that are culturally- and linguistically-competent. This includes short-term stabilization medications, wellness and recovery supports, and connection to social services, including housing.
CARE Court is not for everyone experiencing homelessness or mental illness; rather it focuses on people with schizophrenia spectrum or other psychotic disorders who lack medical decision-making capacity – before they get arrested and committed to a state hospital.
Although homelessness has many faces in California and New York, among the most tragic is the face of the sickest who suffer from treatable mental health conditions — this proposal aims to connect these individuals to effective treatment and support, mapping a path to long-term recovery.
CARE Court may help thousands on their journey to sustained wellness. Its engagement begins with a petition to the court from a wider range of individuals, including care providers, family members, first responders, or counties, among others. CARE Court may be an appropriate next step after a short-term involuntary hospital hold.
Having served as a Deputy Commissioner in the New York City Department of Homeless Services and as a Vice President for Supportive Housing for a nonprofit, I know it is easy to get caught up handling the day-to-day crises which arise in a system that spends more than $3 billion a year. However, we must set aside time and staff to explore the big picture as California is doing.
Robert Mascali is a former Deputy Commissioner at the NYC Department of Homeless Services and a former Vice President for Supportive Housing at Women in Need.