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Progress Report: Homelessness and the Search for Affordable Housing Solutions
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Progress Report: Homelessness and the 
Search for Affordable Housing Solutions

Frederick Shack, LMSW
Chief Executive Officer
Urban Pathways, Inc.

Mayor de Blasio has made tackling homelessness and addressing the affordable housing crisis a major focus of his administration’s policy initiatives since he took office in 2014. While the homeless system census remains near an all-time high and New Yorkers grow impatient with what appears to be a lack of progress, those of us who have worked in these areas for decades are beginning to see signs of progress and are hopeful that the tide has changed and that the momentum has shifted toward the possibility of a crisis being abated. 

Success in homelessness requires a dual approach. We must understand why so many New Yorkers find themselves living on our streets or accessing shelter and prevent it whenever possible. We must also simultaneously ensure that exit from the streets or shelter is both rapid and permanent This administration, as evidenced by its recently released reform plan for the City homeless services system, which recognizes the need for this dual approach. The reform plan connects the Department of Homeless Services to the Human Resources Administration under one Commissioner, reducing cost by consolidating support functions while  increasinges the focus of the two agencies on prevention and re-housing, following an already increased City budget investment in both. 

This administration’s approach to addressing the homeless crisis has been driven both by their values grounded in equity and by data. Where these principles have been applied to homeless prevention, we’ve seen a substantial expansion of Homebase, the City’s homeless prevention program: 46.1 million dollars dedicated to homeless prevention in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017. This represents an increase of 24.1 million dollars since FY 2014 and an expansion from 9 Homebase locations to 24  in FY 2015. 

For decades, we’ve known that the majority of families seeking entry into the homeless shelter system are coming from specific communities. In response to this knowledge, the Bloomberg administration started the Homebase prevention program to identify at-risk families and engage them in services designed to stabilize their existing housing and prevent them from entering shelter. Mayor de Blasio, using data and acknowledging the success of this model, has not only continued it but expanded it, bringing this valuable service to additional communities and thousands of additional at-risk individuals and families. 

This administration has also made an important investment in the provision of legal services to low-income tenants in housing court. Studies show that about one third of families that enter family shelters were evicted from private housing, and a 2014 study by the Independent Budget Office established that eviction was the number one cause of homelessness in the NYC shelter system.  In response to this, the administration has increased funding for legal services 10 fold to 62 million dollars. This increased investment in eviction prevention has resulted in an 18% reduction in the number of household evictions when comparing 2015 to 2014. 

Under the leadership of the Mayor and Brigadier General Ret. Commissioner Loree Sutton from the Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs, the City joined other states and municipalities throughout the country in pledging to end veteran homelessness. The City has made notable gains by ending homelessness in NYC amongst chronically homeless vets and reducing the numbers of homeless vets in NYC from 4,677 in 2011 to a historical low of 467 as of mid-March.  Here again, this administration has demonstrated that political resolve, clear focus and the proper use of resources can solve what were previously determined to be intractable social problems. 

While there are almost 58,000 individuals in shelters, when the typical New Yorker thinks of homelessness, what comes to mind are those individuals we all encounter as we move through the streets and transportation hubs of this city. Single men and women, many of them living with mental illness, substance abuse disorders or both, are the faces of homelessness. They are the most visible, needy, fragile, at risk of homeless, and the most difficult to engage. Throughout our history, we have struggled to address this population, failing to recognize that a major barrier to our success was baked into the way our services were designed. Regarding homeless policy, it’s been long held that receipt of public benefit and resources should be preceded by a commitment on the part of the recipient to invest in working on the issue that led them to require assistance. There has always been a segment of the homeless population where this approach has never worked. Starting with the Bloomberg administration, NYC began to adopt a housing first approach which is a low-threshold housing and service model based on an evidence-based model that demonstrates how removing the barriers to access housing and services increases our ability to engage them and helps them move towards their recovery. 

The current administration has fully embraced this approach and has begun several initiatives to remove barriers and increase access to housing and services. New initiatives include The Opening Doors program in partnership with the faith community to open 500 respite beds for street homeless. The administration also plans to open three additional Drop-in Centers designed to give the street homeless 24-hour access to meals, shelter, health services, case management, and referrals to housing. 

Another new initiative is the just begun HOME-STAT (Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement S‎treet Action Team). The HOME-STAT outreach effort will enhance Manhattan street outreach efforts by daily canvassing each Manhattan block from Canal St. to 145th St., increasing City homeless outreach staff, and redeploying NYPD officers to the NYPD Homeless Outreach Unit. HOME-STAT will also lead to increased reporting on the street homeless population by conducting a quarterly night count of the NYC street homeless, where historically we’ve only done the count once a year.

The administration has also increased the number of safe haven beds which serve as a resource for homeless outreach teams, giving street homeless immediate access to low threshold housing and shelter without having to go through the City’s central homeless intake unit. In addition, the Mayor has committed to using City resources to develop an additional 15,000 supportive housing units for homeless individuals and families with disabilities or other barriers which can be addressed by the combination of affordable housing linked to services. Many of us believe that it was the Mayor’s leadership here that prompted the State to add an additional 20,000 units of supportive housing units funded by the State. 

With all that has been achieved, we recognize the root cause of homelessness lies at the intersection between poverty and the lack of affordable housing. Here is where the Mayor’s vision has truly been an inspiration. He has committed to the most aggressive affordable housing plan since the late Mayor Koch, with a plan to develop and or preserve 200,000 affordable units. He has also shown leadership in increasing the minimum wage for City employees and nonprofit employees paid through City contracts to 15 dollars an hour. Both of these initiatives will go a long way in closing the pipeline of poverty and despair which for far too long has served as the feeder system perpetuating the homeless crisis for decades. The question we must now ask is where is the federal government in our homelessness crisis? Without a true investment of federal resources for affordable housing and the minimum wage, cities like New York, will continue to struggle in their efforts to end homelessness.   

It took us several decades of failed policies and missed opportunities to grow our shelter system and street homelessness population to its current level, and in spite of the efforts of this administration, it will take several years for the impact of today’s hard work to get us to a point where the homeless crisis becomes a thing of the past. If we can sustain the progress made to date and ensure these new initiatives continue, I’ll remain patient and optimistic about the future of this City.    
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